Alex Kharchyshyn, CEO of Firelink Media, joins the latest series of affiliate interviews on Affiliate Grand Slam
Alex Kharchyshyn and the team of Firelink Media focus on projects rather than markets. They bet on good products, good content, and a well-thought link-building strategy - follow his story below.
How did Firelink Media take off?
Firelink media evolved from the small SEO project. In 2017, the part of the future team was competing in the user acquisition field. 2018 brought us the vision of the affiliate business and the company took off in late January. The founding team did have prior experience in SEO and affiliate marketing.
What were your biggest challenges when first starting?
People, processes, and early revenue were the most challenging parts of the first year of business operation. The labour market was not able to supply enough high-quality people. At the same time, we were still building our understanding of how the business should operate. We had to do some tinkering to find our way of traffic generation.
Tell us a bit more about your business model, concept, and culture.
We believe in the organic nature of business and culture. We had to go through iterations, evolution steps, both with the business processes and the culture inside Firelink Media. As for now, we have several autonomous teams that work on their projects. Each project may have one or many websites that share the idea, the vision of the media product, and know their goals. The culture combines the spirit of competition and tolerance.
What sets you apart from other affiliates?
The question is quite complicated. I hope the product (and eventually the traffic quality) is what sets us apart from others on the market. We do not look too much at the way how fellow affiliate companies operate. On the contrary, we innovate to find the product that will fit tomorrow, we blend the best practices from the different businesses.
What makes your traffic proposition/traffic sites unique? What helps make your performance successful?
As for the sites, it is the unique value proposition, the added value brought by the product. As for the traffic, we offer wide geography and semantic clusters. We do not use any other sources except search engines. We know the complete telemetry of our traffic and don't sell the one that won't convert into "paying".
How do you bring value to your end-users?
We offer the products (to the end-user) that show the best engagement and retention of players. At some moment, we'll gather enough behavioral patterns to train the ML model and use it to manage the traffic.
What importance do you give to responsible gaming?
We are 100% aligned with the idea of responsible gaming. At the moment the most pragmatic things we do follow all current regulations and exclude bad companies from our partner lists. We'd be happy to know the by-user performance data of the players. That would give us a better understanding of the possible problems.
How did you scale up your affiliate business?
We didn't yet; it is the first step to what we want to build. We see good companies, we see the changes of the market, and believe we have good chances to grow X10-100 from where we are now.
Which markets do you focus on and do you see any potential in the emerging markets?
We do not focus on the markets, we focus on the projects instead. Each project has its locales that are most appropriate from the business perspective. We move from audience intents and business opportunities upwards. As for the emerging markets, we are in. We like the idea to get into the train that is still taking up speed.
Which niches work best for your affiliate marketing, and which are the most profitable? How did you find your most profitable niche?
We look at EPC (earnings per click) and optimise all our projects around the numbers. I can't say that some niches are more profitable - it's all in the efficiency of the processes and the depth of understanding of the niche. We perform better where we work better and know the user and the partners better. There is no bad traffic, we like all niches in iGaming.
How did SEO change in the last few years and what should one expect in the next year or two?
It did not change significantly. I'd say that the search overlord now knows more about some topics and he will become better at understanding the user intents each day. Google will structure the content and serve it from its snippets more. The accessible volume for the affiliate sites would get lower. Look at how much information search giant serves for sport-teams-related searches already.
Which SEO factors are not in your control?
Think of the machine learning models and features instead of factors. The interfaces of the assessor's accounts suggest that might be right. It is impossible to control how Google marks up the features and what tuning is on the way. It is possible to reverse engineer some features but it is not always worth doing. We bet on good products, good content, and a well-thought link-building strategy.
How does streaming, twitch, disrupt SEO?
They steal traffic from the text searches. Part of the search volume is now gone to video and streaming platforms. It would be great to master those platforms as well. We are bad in this so far, but hey, that's not our focus.
Are you contemplating bringing in investors to scale or grow your business? Or, with such a big M&A market, have you ever contemplated selling the business? Have you considered going down the operator route?
We bootstrap from the moment of the founders’ round. We are open to talk about partnerships with added value. Our business is organised the way that each project should be an excellent investment opportunity for M&A players in the future. I'd like to build a network of people who are looking for well-structured, healthy projects. I know it takes time from my past venture fund experience.
The operator route is off the table. The full vertical might seem attractive but it looks better to build the iGaming product beside the Firelink, not inside. It brings benefits without jeopardizing the idea of an affiliate business: let users go to the best product on the market.
Which qualities and skills are essential in an affiliate team/business?
The affiliate business does not differ from other kinds of businesses. You have to understand the value you bring to the market, how to sell the value, and how to scale the production. In our case, we prize project-, product-management skills and the ability to make the right investment decisions.
How does technology play a part in your day-to-day?
You always want to have an unfair advantage in technology working for the business.
Which emerging technologies like AI and big data will impact the affiliate industry in 2021 and beyond?
It is already the core of the industry in 2021 if we talk about the SEO affiliate business. The affiliates fight for the places in SERP which is almost under the control of Google's ML models.
How has the fragmentation of regulated markets affected your business? UKGC, Swedish regulator, and now also the German regulator is mulling regulating this space.
Let's refer to the quarterly and annual reports of public companies - "super-affiliates". The figures say the fragmentation and regulation hurt Net Revenue in the affected markets. It might lead to the consolidation of the affiliate market.
How do you manage relationships with multiple operators? What can operators do to increase support with affiliates?
Trust and transparency are the basis of our relationships. We bring better value when we have more data about the performance of our audience. So we are looking for an opportunity to work together on getting the best EPC for both parties.
Have you ever been to SiGMA? SiGMA Europe, Africa, Asia, or Americas - which of these four expo shows would you likely book on your diary for 2021, COVID-19 permitting?
The Firelink team is the serial SiGMA visitor if we can say so. We love the people, the spirit of events. Europe is still the #1 for us.
Tell us a bit about yourself - after all, business is done with people, not just companies! Your hobbies, favorite book, favorite quote, whether you are into Gaming yourself, etc.
I like games of skill more than those of luck. I enjoy racing drones, both building and flying them. I can consider myself an outdoorsman. I read a lot of books, the latest is Ha-Joon Chang Economics: The User's Guide. I am a bit eccentric person in my late thirties.
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