I love River Braun.
Maybe it’s the fact that he knows way more about sailboats than I EVER will.
Maybe it’s the fact that he runs an agency entirely remotely while flipping people the bird on shore. (Just kidding, he’s so nice, he probably doesn’t ever flip the bird. 🐥)
Or maybe it’s the fact that he’s engineered his life specifically so he can have it all: the wife, the boat, and the biz.
But, that’s only the tip of the iceberg (which totally feels like a cruel boat pun). You know why else I was SO pumped to do a case study on River’s business?
- He earns $250,000 a year remotely from wherever he happens to be in the world. You can buy a lot of really nice sailing shoes with that. (Are sailing shoes a thing??? ⛵️)
- In a past life, he was a lawyer—but as he sought career advancement, he suffered massive anxiety just interviewing for his next role. Did he really want to sue people for a living? (Answer: GOD NO.) (Maybe he does flip the bird, if only metaphorically. 😉)
- He lost his partner of 9 years, his dad, and his grandmother all within the same year of each other 💔, accelerating his decision to enter into a new line of work.
- In 2017, he also made the decision to transition to the gender where he felt most like himself: River is trans male. He was 42 when he made the transition. His book, Call Me Him, was entirely self-funded on Kickstarter after mainstream publishers told his agent that the transgender coming-of-age moment had passed. (All proceeds from the sale of the book go to The Trevor Project, Human Rights Campaign, and The Transgender Law Center. 🌟)
- He was always a great writer, and writing became the creative calm he craved in his career. So, he also started writing on Upwork, a freelance marketplace, and actually had a ton of initial success. From there, he was able to leverage those relationships into referrals—and hence, his current agency—where he writes SEO content for busy professionals…like lawyers. 😀
- Today, he has four writers that write for him!
- Most of his clients are super hands-off—AKA the dream. This is a fascinating biz insight you’ll DEF want to hear.
- And the way he converts clients is just SO, SO GOOD. It’s damn-near bulletproof. I can’t wait to tell you how he does it!
When you think of “SEO writing,” you probably think of, well, the person you really freakin’ need. After all, everyone wants to rank on Google, right? And no one wants to pay thousands and thousands of dollars in ads if they don’t have to.
Enter: River’s SEO strategy & content agency, Downwind Creative.
Appropriate for a sailor, eh?
River helps businesses get traffic, because, as he puts it matter-of-factly on his website, “Traffic + Conversions = Clients. It’s really that simple.”
And, he’s hella good at it. That methodological lawyer brain 🧠 combined with his innate creative brain 🖌 makes for the perfect combo.
Just ask his clients, who spend an average of $1800/month to have River’s agency work on their SEO.
Here’s how the business works!
- You need clients, so you hire Downwind Creative 💃
- River doesn’t work by the hour, but rather by the package, which he’s structuring around a proprietary framework he’s developed:
- Package One: Foundations
- Package Two: Foundations + Active Search (Organic)
- Package Three: Foundations + Active Search (Organic) + Active Search (Paid)
- Package Four: Foundations + Active Search (Organic) + Active Search (Paid) + Passive Prospects (Paid) (Note: “Passive Prospects” are when you target your competitor’s prospects with paid ads.)
- The Foundations Package is focused on auditing a client’s existing site, along with their competitors, industry and keywords. The client then gets detailed walk-through on what onsite SEO strategies they can employ to get to page one. Rates start at ~$3K for up to a 10-page site and increase from there.
- The Foundations + Active Search (Organic) includes that, but then also goes into content. River starts with keyword research and gap analysis. He then audits existing pages and makes recommendations for any remaining on-page optimization, performs content topic ideation, creates a content calendar, delivers detailed content briefs, and offers strategic consultations to help train a client’s team (or they can write the content for an additional fee). Rates start at $6K for up to 20 pages of audits and content briefs.
- These two packages form the brunt of his work, as his goal is to get his clients as much exposure without paid advertising. However, depending on a client’s goals, they may also enter that territory. 🎉
- He works in sprints with his clients, assigning metrics to hit before moving onto the next stage. (Or repeating stages until they get the desired effect.) Here’s what River said:
”I am focusing on targeted stages or “sprints” that people can choose to repeat. Done strategically, SEO can happen fast – I think my record (that I’m aware of) is 2-weeks to page one (non-branded keywords). I’m working on breaking that. Of course, in some highly competitive industries (like law) (plus website age and a couple other factors) the average is 2-4 months.”
So, of course, I had three big questions right off the bat!
- How are you doing this magic from a boat?! (See also: How do you actually SAIL A BOAT?!)
- How are you getting clients in the first place??
- And, how are you scaling to $250K???
Obviously it’s my job to torture our subjects as much as possible, so let’s go through ‘em one by one! ⬇️
Question #1: How is he doing this magic from a boat?
My take: one of the benefits of SEO writing is that you can do it from anywhere in the world: your physical presence is not needed. 😀 But, if you don’t know what you’re doing, traveling + working can be a real clusterf**k. Have you ever heard of The Spoon Theory? It’s a metaphor for how much energy you’ve got to spend in a day—each spoon represents an activity that drains you.
I think of traveling while working much in the same way: you’ve only got so many “work spoons,” if you will, because unlike a regular professional who’s spending 10 hours a day commuting and sitting in an office with a seemingly endless amount of time they’re trying to fill, YOU will need to work on a dramatically shortened timeline if you ever hope to shut the computer and get outside. (Just ask anyone who’s tried to take an 10-hour+ business on the road: they spend most of their time trapped inside a hotel room, spending way more money to be in a self-imposed cubicle. And, that’s not the point.)
So naturally, I wanted to know how River was approaching this—especially because I know what WIFI can be like abroad, so….what’s it like on a boat?!
Turns out, he’s got a system. (Of course he does.)
- When he’s on land, he front loads as much work as possible. This means he’ll typically work a long workday from the hours of 8am – 6pm, so he can get ahead of the work while connected.
- When he’s actively sailing on the boat, he goes on “maintenance mode”: he only works in the mornings…then takes the afternoons off “to go paddleboarding or diving or drinking”—and yes, he should absolutely have a “Riv Cam” so we can all live vicariously through him. 🤣 Because he frontloaded a lot of the work while on land, there’s no gap in deliverables.
I LOVE the idea of maintenance mode—especially when it’s done with intention and purpose. Most people think that running a business means you always have to be running the business at max capacity, but in reality, if you can be strategic about the way you spend your time, you can structure your work any way you want to!
This is similar to the way I work as well: when we’re in Costa Rica, I front load a ton of work. This is when I create systems, build email sequences, handle lots of admin. When we’re on the road, I ENJOY THE ROAD. 🌟 But, this requires a whole different kind of planning than most people are used to. It takes sacrifice and discipline during certain times of the year…but you also get the benefit of seeing and doing things most people will never be able to do. And, for our kind? It’s 💯 worth it.
Question #2: How is he getting clients???
THE question everyone wants to know—and one of the things that I think makes River’s strategy so, so fascinating.
So first of all, he tells me that the BIGGEST source of leads is hands-down—drum roll—word-of-mouth referrals.
“Clients refer people to me all 👏🏻 the 👏🏻 time. It’s my biggest source of clients. I had one client I got on Upwork in Dec, who then referred me to their business partner, then their sister, then their best friend. This one client has brought me multiple figures in client work alone.”
He REALLY likes Upwork—but, not for the reasons that you think.
Instead of relying on Upwork for all of his clients, what he does is uses them to get his footing in a new industry, and then from there, asks for referrals to other industry peers.
Right now, he’s working with businesses in the following categories:
Legal Healthcare Financial Dentistry Chiropractors Tech And…Local Businesses
This last bit is key.
River works with professionals.
And, more specifically, he works with professionals who need to get ranked locally.
This means two things:
- PROFESSIONAL BUSINESSES: I always tell clients that if a person has the willingness to pay, but not the ability to pay, your business is dead in the water. For as many amazing intentions as we may have—i.e. working with young people and college students, for example—there has to be an ABILITY to pay unless you want to open a non-profit. For a business to make money, a client has to have money. So, think about the businesses that River is targeting: they’re all traditionally high-earning professional businesses: legal, financial, healthcare. This subset of the population definitely has the ability to pay, and they also recognize the need to pay: they understand ROI, and understand that paying a sizeable sum for this isn’t a cost, it’s a money-producing investment. If they charge $400/hour, and one client is worth $10K/month, and River helps them get just 2 new clients for a grand total of $240,000 for the year, then paying River’s agency $6K for the year makes a whoooole lot of sense. It’s not even a question, especially since that’s a wildly conservative model. Compare that, however, to the new coach who doesn’t have the cashflow yet to invest: that’s a whole different conversation. Which prompts an interesting question: how hard do you want to have to work to get business?
- LOCAL BUSINESSES: To rank a business locally with SEO is a much different ballgame than ranking a business globally. Most of us who work online as copywriters, designers, and coaches face a different problem: how to get found when anyone in the world can hire you??? You’d think it’d be easier to be hired, since your client pool is much bigger, but oftentimes it’s actually harder, because you’re competing with everyone in the world to get found. Imagine what would happen, though, if you were to try to get ranked in your local hometown for something like “teeth cleaning, Omaha.” GAME CHANGER. This means that River can more easily not only do the work, but prove the results. Local professionals do not need to be globally ranked: they only need to kick Ted the Dentist’s ass across town. This is a major insight.
There is also a massive hidden advantage to targeting this group of folks: they’re busy.
Busy clients are a good thing.
Busy means that they’re more likely to hire you to do your job—and then sit back as you do it. There is more trust and less nitpicking; more autonomy and less micromanaging. That’s because busy people don’t have time or the desire to be micromanaging you: they’re hiring you to perform a role, and your success depends on how well you perform it. Not how well you manage their emotional landscape.
If you’re new in business, that might not mean a lot to you now: but, go after the wrong client, and you’ll spend all of your time trying to coach them through the emotional strains of every decision. Go after the right client, and you’ll be doing what they hired you to do—because they don’t have time to even think about you.
What they want is the outcome.
And so, they engage you in a professional relationship to provide that outcome.
This is evidenced in River’s project flow: “We’re usually in contact on a monthly basis.” As soon as he says this, I laugh, thinking about the many students I’ve coached who have had clients who are Stage 5 Clingers: needy and demanding, mentally and emotionally. A once-a-month check-in would be unheard of with certain groups, whereas with River’s target market, even that is almost a burden. He tells me that one client is so busy, she keeps putting off his meeting to deliver his progress report and talk next steps. She just wants the work done. In that instance, he knows what to do: he makes it easy for them. He’ll record those clients a video, instead, documenting his progress while still making sure they can view it on their timeline.
But, back to the real question: how do you get clients to say YES?
If you poke around River’s website, you’ll notice that there are two main calls-to-action:
The webinar is new, but the website audit is the biggest piece of this puzzle. You know how most people ask you to opt in with your email, and then send you a bunch of automated emails?
River doesn’t do that.
Instead, he drives you over and over again to his contact form, where he asks you a few questions about your budget and what you need.
Then—and this is genius—if the budget matches, he will do a 30 minute discovery call with you, and then HE WILL MAKE YOU A FULL-ON PLAYBOOK, FREE OF CHARGE.
He makes every qualified prospective client a custom playbook:
”I’ll ask them what goals are, where they’re stuck. Then, I’ll make them a playbook. I’ll research everything. Look at their online reputation. Their current SEO. Their competitors. It’s fairly standardized. And then I’ll say to them: ‘Starting with your foundation, we sure could use XYZ. Your social is non-existent—let’s get you on there. From there, we’ll target active searchers. They’re searching, and they have money. Look at all of these keywords you could be ranking for. Then there are passive prospects—for example, all the people we can go spy on and put ads out there to target them. Based on what you told me and where you want to be, these are the strategies I would employ.’”
He told me that if he gets a client to this stage, it’s an almost guaranteed done deal. This speaks volumes about the importance of, first, charging the appropriate money so you can invest time into getting high-calibur clients, and second, making each client feel like they MATTER.
There’s something to be said about feeling like you really, truly have someone on your team. Someone who sees you. Someone who is actively working to help you, when you don’t have enough time in your day to help yourself.
We might not always be willing to pay premium for “SEO” (or substitute your industry of choice), but we will always be willing to pay premium for people who we think will REALLY HELP US.
In some of the other case studies, we’ve seen the strategy of reaching out to prospective students via personal video to demonstrate this same sentiment: I’m here, and I see you, and I’ve got you. And it works wonders for helping people not feel like a crappy little number. In River’s case, he’s using the custom playbook to accomplish the same goal.
I am invested in you.
This is a great exercise to consider: how can you make your clients feel the same way? How can you demonstrate that you’re invested in them for real? Because this is an INCREDIBLE advantage when it comes to any kind of business…not just the online stuff.
Question #3: How is he scaling to $250K???
And the final question!
Because you can get all the clients in the world, but that doesn’t help you if you’re working yourself to a pulp. This is NOT sustainable, and especially not if you want to travel and work from anywhere in the world. 🌎
So my third question to River: how are you actually scaling to $250K? What’s the money makeup? How does that work?
And that’s when he told me the (super intelligent) way his business is structured. 🤩
He works with clients on their strategy. But, when they hire him to product the content, he gets by with a little help from his friends. 💛
He’s actually got four writers on staff: two long-term writers (a lawyer and a paralegal), and two newer writers.
The brilliance, however, is in the system:
River will meet with all of the clients, devise the greater strategy, and put together the step-by-step playbook. Then, once a client is onboard, he’ll outline the steps they’re going to take in more detail, including which articles need to be written on which topics. From there, he’ll assign those topics to his writers, who then perform the necessary research and write the article in full (unless he’s working exclusively with a client himself), and then pass it back to him for a final SEO review, where he’ll make some additional SEO tweaks and changes. At that stage, he’ll finalize the article and then will publish it on behalf of the client.
THIS IS COOL.
The client isn’t typically reviewing every piece of content, serving as the bottleneck. River will publish it for them, so the content does what it’s supposed to do: get them more clients. That’s all they’re concerned with. They aren’t obsessed with having a unique voice on the internet, and they aren’t nitpicking over how every word represents them (or doesn’t). And they don’t care that they have a ghostwriter writing their stuff. They aren’t trying to be writers: they’re trying to get more clients.
As you can see, there’s a real advantage with this target market: they’re not in the online world, so they have a different relationship to the online world. This might be really healthy, if you’re thinking about target markets.
Because River’s clients are fairly hands-off, him and his team are freed up to focus on creating and producing the actual creative and strategic work, which they then publish and monitor, analyzing for its rank over time and seeing how the content performs (and filling in any gaps, when they spot ‘em). Then, they meet with their clients each month to deliver a progress report and adjust their strategy as necessary.
This means that they can produce a greater impact, since there’s less daily back-and-forth / managing of the emotions of the client.
However, another advantage is that a large percentage of the creation process is put in the trusted hands of his employees, who are trained in the area he most specializes in (law), and then he does his magic when it comes to SEO.
Having this team on board is a big part of his ability to scale: likely from a lifetime of working in legal, where working together as a team was de rigueur, he was instantly comfortable with doing the same for his business.
But, this isn’t the only reason why the business has pulled $250K the last couple of years, while River is ALSO on a sailboat, traveling those high seas. (He’s on his way to Panama and Costa Rica, soon, where I encouraged him to dock in my town, if we’re there, so we can say hi!!!!)
He’s also has another trick up his sleeve for getting clients on board—and that’s meeting some clients higher up at the top of the funnel.
Oftentimes, when clients need “to get found,” what they think they need is a new website. Even if what they really need is SEO, they might go searching for web design. These clients would be considered “top of the funnel,” since what they’re searching for is a few steps earlier than where River usually comes in. So, River’s developed a way to add web design to his offerings as well, in order to capture those folks that do have a budget and are coming in, asking for web design…knowing what comes next: SEO.
So, instead of starting with SEO, for those clients he’ll start at the web design phase of the project, and then say one simple, but effective, thing once the design is in place: “Okay we’ve got your website done, if you want people to see it, here’s what we have to do.”
Overall, something I am struck by is the gorgeous simplicity of River’s business: he isn’t putting himself through hoops to have the coolest Instagram Reels on the planet; he isn’t writing 10,000 newsletters, or guilting himself into having a podcast, too.
He’s just focused on doing great work, and working with great people.
No smoke and mirrors.
No pretending to be anything else than he is.
He is honest and magnificently true to himself, and it’s utterly apparent that the way he does business is reflective of the way he does life.
Sure, let’s hop on a sailboat.
Sure, let me tell you my story.
Sure, let me help you with your business.
Sure, I’d love to be your friend.
In a world that would prefer that you do things their way, River is a refreshing example of someone who is doing things HIS way.
And, he’s making a mint doing it.
Not because he needs all that money.
But because earning it is what happens when you finally find yourself at the end of it all: when you turn into a bright, shiny light, it means that other people can find you, too.
Even if you’re at the other end of the ocean, with your wife Christy at your side, and the wind at your back, not knowing where you’ll go next…but knowing you’ve found home.