Bootstrapped Interview: Robert Brandl, ToolTester Network

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A few years ago I created an affiliate program to increase the sales of my desktop app. The program had little success.

I’m doing now what I should have done then - interviewing someone who makes their living from affiliate programs.

Meet Robert Brandl. Robert runs a collection of affiliate marketing sites, collectively known as the ToolTester Network.

Hi Robert! What’s the ToolTester Network?

From our office in Barcelona, we run review websites for various SaaS tools. Among other things, we test email marketing services, website builders, live chat tools and a few other web services. I started it in late 2009 while I was still working at my old job in an online marketing agency.

Tell us a brief history of the ToolTester Network. Why did you start it? How did it grow?

Basically I scratched my own itch. Since I am not a programmer, I found it very difficult to create a website. Back then software like Dreamweaver was state of the art. So I researched the web and found the first hosted website builders like Weebly, Webnode and Squarespace that even I was capable of using. As there was hardly any information on the web about them, I created a simple (free!) website with Webnode and collected all the information I could find. Total bootstrapper budget: $12 for a domain name!

WebsiteToolTester then grew through Google’s organic search. A lot of search demand was met with a very limited content offering. Luckily many of these searches ended up on my website. I guess I was in the right place at the right time.

I had already heard about affiliate marketing but never thought much of it. But reading that some bloggers make 4 or even 5 figures per month with it, I thought I could give it a try. Three weeks later I recorded my first sale, one of many more to follow.

Replacing my old salary took a little more than a year, which, frankly, surprised me quite a bit! Now I manage a team of four employees in our office in Barcelona. Initially hiring was a big pain point as I thought I should follow all these internet marketer’s advice to hire cheap remote staff in the Philippines. However, after a few initial interviews I realised that this isn’t the way to go as not one of the candidates even understood what my website was about.

What worked out well for me is to hire locally as Barcelona is a super international city, where you can find all kinds of skills and languages. Currently we only work with remote staff if we absolutely have to – even though it’s probably against the current trend. I like it when my employees are near me. I find it much more productive to work this way and I am also able to build much stronger relationships with them. My first employee has been with the company for six years already and is still with me today!

Some people describe the affiliate marketing industry in unflattering terms. Do you think that’s deserved? How do you keep things honest?

You are absolutely right that there are nasty things happening in the affiliate space. Probably the worst I’ve seen was an affiliate review website (which got its traffic via Google ads) do an A/B test with the rankings of the products they review. Reloading the page would give you an entirely new ranking table. So much about honesty.

On the other hand there’s also a lot of honest affiliates who genuinely want to help their readers and their community succeed. In our case we always have the comments in our reviews activated. That makes us accountable as our readers do let us know when there’s a mistake in the review or when they think something is not accurate.

Also there is this general rule I always give to my reviewers: would you recommend this product to a good friend? If not, it probably shouldn’t have a good rating regardless if they pay a high commission.

What affiliate program is a good example that us bootstrappers can learn?

It’s not easy to pick one program out of the many we are part of. Wix.com have an excellent affiliate program with a team dedicated to supporting their affiliates. Their tracking software is excellent and allows you to track sub-IDs, specific landing pages and also do wire transfers instead of Paypal (which usually incurs high fees). But as they are so big it’s probably a bit hard to relate to them for founders of bootstrapped companies.

What general advice do you have for a software bootstrapper considering an affiliate program?

The best affiliate programs have a couple of characteristics that I wrote down in this blog post.

Technical: There are technical things that are very important for me like being able to create affiliate links to subpages (so-called deeplinks). Ideally they also let you track sub-IDs so we can separate different languages for example. We are partners with some companies where we need seven different affiliate accounts because otherwise, we wouldn’t know from what language the sale comes from.

Free Demo Account: What I find bewildering is how difficult many companies make it to obtain a free account for testing. Since we are a review website we really need a working demo account and I don’t think it’s fair to expect us to pay for it.

Partner Management: One of the biggest factors causing an affiliate program to work or not is whether the company has assigned a person with responsibility for it. Too often the affiliate program is just run as an additional task by a marketing person who already has a million other things on their plate.

One thing that is completely overrated, at least for me, are banner visuals. I would not put them on my site and also don’t know any successful affiliate site using such banners.

We have built up some really good affiliate partnerships where we even publish guest posts on other websites where we mention our partners. I think that’s pretty much as good as it gets for the company with the affiliate program.

Some affiliate programs offer benefits instead of cash. For example, DropBox offers more storage space, and MailChimp offers account credits. What are your views on this approach?

Speaking as an affiliate this model is really not attractive. As you are saying, Mailchimp only pays out “monkey credits”. We’ve now got more monkey credits than we can ever use up in our lifetimes. But fortunately there are other newsletter services that pay real money.

Where can people reach you if they want more advice?

The easiest way would be @RobertBrandl on Twitter. Judging by the amount of unsolicited emails I receive, it’s probably also not too difficult to find my email address somewhere on the web. :slight_smile:

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