15 Important Lessons I Learned as an SEO Start-up

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It’s almost 2 years since I officially started SEO Hacker. I can honestly say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever attempted to do in life. It’s also one of the most painful, stressful and frustrating things things that has happened to me. So here’s the short list of what I’ve learned as its first director, CEO and consultant.

1. Always be Ready to Evangelize

Sean Si EvangelizeStories, case studies, experiences, results – those  are the stuffs of the future. There are tons of theories, tons of how-to’s, tons of sales talk in our day and age. Stories hold huge weight in pinning down a prospective client to a sale.

Outside of a sales perspective, story-telling in your circle of friends can make a huge impact in rippling out your business to others. My first huge client (which is still my client to date) came from a short chat while riding the train on my way to my then day job. I bumped into one of my college-mates there. We weren’t really close. I told him that I was into SEO and shared its value and what it did for my blog. He said that he would refer me.

Turns out that he did. I got to close the deal. SEO Hacker had its first big win.

After that lesson, I never stopped evangelizing.

2. Give Free Consultations

Yes I know, you want to get paid per hour. While it may be true that what you know is worth every penny to what you’re charging, free consultations build trust. More often than not, it has helped me get the whole business. Yes clients may call me late at night or early in the morning, but giving free consultations to prospective clients has exceptionally increased closing rate on sales.

Clients appreciate the little things. They also feel more secure when you give them more information about what they’re getting in to and what they want to know about other aspects of online marketing. You can leverage on giving them what they desire to know instead of telling them vague generalities about the industry.

I have a client now that signed up with us for their main product’s SEO and signed up with another SEO company for their new product’s SEO. They wanted to see who’s the better SEO services provider. While I’m easily 60% more expensive in my monthly retainer than the other SEO company, I gave out free consultations to the owner.

“Call me anytime if you need anything – except for money.”, I said. And he did. He called up to wake me up often times (I sleep and wake up late while he’s an early bird). But it was all worth it.

The whole business is now awarded to us and we’re just waiting for the contract of the other (much cheaper) SEO company to expire. I do not know if they are doing a good job or not. What I do know is that I gave out free, anytime consultation -and it worked!

It’s one of my trump cards on client acquisition.

3. Don’t be Afraid to Jack up your Price

louis vuittonYou have to understand that SEO especially here in the Philippines is still considered ‘new’ by most companies. The dominant (and effective) form of marketing here is still TV. That leaves us with a ‘free market’ and a free market means that the price range is crazy.

There are companies offering SEO for as low as $300 a month. And yes, they claim that it’s white hat – with all the linkbuilding tricks you can ever imagine. If I tried to pull that stunt, I’d be out of business in a month’s time.

When I read Seth Godin’s Linchpin, I understood the importance of pricing. Louis Vuitton can afford to charge that much because they are all for quality and exclusivity. I want to be a company like that. That’s one reason why we give client exclusivity for their niche/industry. And we also charge premium for it.

Companies can butt-heads on lowering prices. It can be the weapon of choice for most SEO companies. It’s also a vicious, downward spiral. The clients win and the SEO industry loses.

My weapon of choice is increasing the quality of our services and building a brand. That way, pricing is secondary and I’m very happy with the few really good clients I have.

Think like Louis Vuitton. Win.

4. Always build your branding

Lots of SEO companies neglect what they should really be building on because they’re focusing on the new clients they’ve acquired. While it’s true that it’s difficult to balance brand-building and client work, it affects your company in a holistic level. Not building your brand (or neglecting to build it) leaves you where you’re at.

At the very core, we are a marketing firm. It’s supposed to be what we’re best at. We show people who we are, what we’re made of, what we can do for them. Building your brand in terms of design, content, case studies, showcasing your team, telling stories about your history – those things will create really good leverage when clients drop by in your website.

I cannot stress enough how important brand building is to prospective clients. Often, they would go to a competitor’s website and compare it with what we have at SEO Hacker. Most of the time it doesn’t even come close. I’ve won a handful of clients this way. I don’t even need to point out the difference. They can see it for themselves.

How a smart client thinks: “How well you’re taking care of your own website is how you will take care of mine.”

Right there and then, we’ve got a huge advantage. Especially because there are very few other SEO companies here that take care of their online branding.

5. Innovate

Often when a business reaches a point in time where it’s raking in a good amount of profit, it cruises. Cruising is when a business just milks the cow for what it’s worth and maintains the status quo. Everything’s going great anyway – why fix it when it’s not broken? Right?

Wrong. In this day and age, things happen and change fast. Cruising used to be awesome. It used to last for long. Now if you cruise, it’s risky. Competitors are everywhere. They spring up like weeds. One of them will overtake you. So what do you need to do?

Innovate. Don’t stop where you’re at. Don’t milk the cow and drink it all up. Invest it in something else. A remarkable product. A Purple Cow that only you can make.

SEO Hacker is going 2 years now as an SEO services company. I’ve hired another director to take the lead in accounts management and operations efficiency. I didn’t cruise. I invested in a new product. I started SEO School. It’s an online school that empowers you to learn SEO through Powerpoint lessons and videos. You can try it out for free here.

SEO Hacker School

I had to hire 5 people to help me out with the school. A good margin of the profits our SEO services make go to the school. I’ve invested quite a lot of time, effort and money in this product. Right now it looks awesome and we’re preparing to launch it officially and spend more on advertising and direct marketing.

Cruising is risky. Innovate.

6. Speak Out What you Know

SEO Hacker at Le PavillonSEO is a new industry where I’m from. It’s a fresh and free market. We need to let people know what it is – the good and bad side of it. It’s our job as industry leaders to educate people about it. Giving talks and seminars are an awesome way to do this.

I’ve given talks and seminars about SEO for free in the hopes that the attendees will spread the news to their peers and create an awareness. They would say that there’s good and bad SEO that dictates the extreme variation of pricing and we all need to be aware of it.

People who don’t know the good and bad side of SEO thinks that it’s all the same banana and they could simply hire the cheapest provider with the most promises. While this is a sad truth that’s happening today, we can do something about it.

Create awareness in your circle of influence. As a young industry, it’s up to us to build the perceptive DNA for what SEO is to prospective clients.

7. Give Free Talks to your Existing Clients and to Prospective Clients

There are connectors, mavens and salesmen in our world. Connectors are people who are simply awesome in socializing. They know everyone.

Mavens are people who are databanks. They are the insiders of a niche. They share what they know to unselfishly help other people.

Then there are the salesmen. Salesmen are people who have the natural knack for persuasion. They have charm. They have enthusiasm. Energy. All that and the ability to influence you in an empathetical way.

In every client’s company, there are people who are one or the other. So what I’d do is I offer to give free speaking engagements to my clients. They are my clients after all. And you know what? 100% of the time, they are happy about it! They want their marketing team to grow after all. What I’m doing is training them for the next best thing to TV – internet marketing.

Note: 90% of SEO Hacker’s clients are established brands/companies. They have their own conference rooms with projectors so they can afford to hold a talk or a seminar in their office building.

It’s a win-win wherein I educate and create awareness in their marketing team, at the same time, I get to build my authority to sophisticated people in their marketing and (sometimes) management team. I get referrals for sister companies and, of course, more contracts. It’s easier to win a sister company of a client because technically you’re already ‘sold’.

8. Don’t be Afraid to Lower your Price

There came a time when we had clients that paid us a $4,000 monthly retainer fee. Sweet, right? The thing is, we got used to it. We set our pricing standards too high and we lost a few good prospective clients along the way. We learned our lesson that the market is very unstable.

Too Expensive

There are companies who can really afford to pay your worth, and there are those who really can’t. For those who can’t, count the intangibles. Does this company have a good brand? Can I benefit from a relationship with this company if I put them in my portfolio? Do they have a sophisticated team who can spread the word about our work?

Not everything is about money and profits. Count the intangibles if the prospective client falls a little short of what you’re charging. Lower your price.

9. Don’t try to Steal Another SEO Company’s Clients

SEO Hacker is primarily an SEO company. We rarely take on web development work even if we have web developers/designers for optimization purposes. I vividly remember there is this other SEO company (let’s name them SEO Company T) that my long-time client hired to do their website revamp. SEO Company T is a predecessor and is a company that I respect – and I still do to some extent.

However after the revamp, when the site was launched and I was monitoring the code, I noticed that SEO Company T left links back to their site in each page of my client’s website. This is a big client with a big brand here in the Philippines. I was upset and disappointed. I took out that piece of code only to find out that they put it back.

I reported this to the client. It was resolved. Everything is back to normal. Or so I thought.

That same client launched digital efforts for another huge product line. Again, SEO Company T did the site. To my surprise, SEO Company T was asking my long-time client to shift the SEO efforts to them instead of us. Good thing I’ve built a lot of trust, rapport and results for my client. And because of that, they simply shrugged off the SEO Company T’s offer.

The sad thing about it is, the SEO companies here in the Philippines are just a handful. Most of the SEOs here are freelancers. It’s a small circle. Don’t try to steal a competitor’s current client. It gives you a bad name. The world is big enough for all of us.

10. Invest in your Team 

In a services type of business, your people is your best asset. I have an awesome God-given team. It’s my job to take care of them and see how they’re doing with their work and with other teammates. Unfortunately, there are times when work and other tasks get piled up for me since I’m also the main point person of SEO Hacker when it comes to technical, financial, legal, and other matters. We are still a sole proprietor type of business, after all.

SEO Hacker Team

Being busy with the business has cost me a lot with my relationship with my team. Sure, I was busy being productive but people are emotional beings. We don’t just care about productivity. We care about ourselves and our relationships.

I once made a mistake in my way of reprimanding the team of taking care of the stuff in the office and maintaining office cleanliness. Turns out that I got a mole in the team. This person, there is no other way to put it – slandered me incessantly while the wounds are still fresh. It festered terribly.

I never knew this until it was too late. And because I did not have close ties with my teammates, they have been enticed away to think negatively of me. Even the good things I’ve done for the team was taken for granted. Even worse, the team justified things they’ve done wrong – leveraging on the slanderous things that were said against me. They agreed with the mole because that person maintained good ties and alliances within my own team.

When you invest in your people, don’t simply invest in equipping them and giving them a great working environment. Invest time, effort, emotions, trust, and love in them. This will go a long way.

Remember, your team is your best asset.

11. Fire People

Not all people are sure whether they are the right fit in being an SEO. Sometimes they’re simply experimenting. There will be times when you hire the wrong guy. It happens.

Basketball

Take Basketball for example: A point guard who is excellent in dribbling the ball but doesn’t know how to pass the ball shouldn’t be playing that position or shouldn’t be in the team at all. He will not only be unproductive, but he will cause the whole team to lose.

Rule of thumb in being a great leader: know who to fire, when to fire, and how to fire him. If you don’t, the rest of your team will suffer and you will lose respect.

12. Have your Own Inner Circle

I  have 16 people in my team. For me, that’s already a lot. This is the most people I’ve ever managed in my life! It’s a lot to take in. Managing 16 relationships to keep close to you is tough. So create an inner circle. People you keep close to you. They are your connectors to the rest of the team. They will know who you are, why you do things and they will always believe the best in you.

Always have a few good men around you. These are the people most loyal to you as a leader. At the same time, identify moles. People who are poisonous and who can infect the rest of your team. Take them out. I failed in identifying a mole once. It cost me dearly.

Don’t make the same mistake.

13. Invest in Design

I love how Neil Patel puts it in his article “How Saving On Design Could Cost You More In The Long Term”. When you pay your designer, don’t think of it as an expense. Think of it as an investment. Design has a lot to do with stickyness, first impressions and likeability. One that would immediately speak “I love my clients and visitors” to the recipients of your design. People who go to your site have to be caught in a trap. They have to fall in love with what you’ve got. Design plays a huge part in fulfilling that.

SEO Hacker used to look like this (November 2011):

SEO Hacker November 2010

 

Then it became this (Oct 2012):

SEO Hacker Oct 2011And now here we are:

SEO Hacker oct 2013

Your website’s design speaks about your brand and how much you care about the quality of your visitors’ stay in your website. Your reports templates’ design speaks about how much you care about your client to make your reports look clean and classy. Your proposal templates speaks to prospective clients about how much you want to win them over and serve them.

Invest in graphic designers and front-end developers. You are not gonna regret it.

Google Calendar SMS

14. Follow-ups can Mean Huge Money

I’m not really good in following up. My fiancee knows this. My team knows this. I’m more of a visionary type of leader than a project manager. There have been times early in my position as director that proposals have been pushed out of the pipeline to the prospective client – and forgotten. Big mistake. Big bucks lost. And all because I failed to follow-up. The root cause? Forgetfulness and busy-ness.

Follow-ups are a huge part of your success. If you’re not the best person in follow-ups then hire someone who is. Or implement a system that will help you to always be reminded to follow-up. I use Google calendar’s SMS feature to remind myself of follow-ups I need to send out. Since I always have my mobile phone with me, I always get reminded via an SMS from Google calendar on the things I need to follow-up on.

15. Keep Reading, Keep Writing

Starting a business has its way of taking you out of your playing field and onto legal matters. I had to take care of tax, business registration, accounting, study labor laws, and all things that make business seem like a lot of work. I found myself having less and less time to read and write. Big mistake!

One of the best pieces of advise I can give you is to just hire people to do these things for you. Focus on what you’re great at! Share! Be a Maven and make content marketing your stage. Don’t waste your time on things you’re not good at. There are people for those tasks.

Here we are Now

I can honestly say that I’ve been through highs and lows in starting out SEO Hacker. I’ve learned tons and tons of lessons that I can only learn in the height of success and in the depth of failure. These are some of the most valuable insights I carry with me. I pass it on now to you.

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  • Ramohan Reddy

    A large part of SEO is just making it obvious what your page is about. This helps both the user and the search engine. A lot of it is just usability, but usability specifically for a user who is coming from a search engine

  • Ogi

    Great article and some very useful tips.

    • h3sean

      Thanks Ogi :)

  • http://jefmenguin.com/topic/everyday-leadership-blog/ Jef Menguin

    Helpful article. Thank you for sharing.

    • h3sean

      Jef,
      My pleasure! I noticed you are an inspirational speaker. How is it?

  • ibs

    I love your honesty.. you inspire me to write more.

    • h3sean

      Ibs,
      Go write more! :) It’s well worth it.

  • Emmily

    Awesome story Sean! This piece is a goldmine of what to do starting out as a company – even in general! Kudos to you!

  • http://www.bestnindia.com/Mangalore/Restaurants Restaurants in Mangalore

    I found lots of interesting information here. Nice Amazing Presentation..Thanks…

  • Jason Brad

    Great SEO tips. I’m an SEO starter and since things keep changing fast in this trying to catch up with all new stuff.
    Jason

  • http://austin.homecity.com/ HomeCity Real Estate

    Some of these are great tips for any small business. Free consultations are great. People love free things and giving them a chance to try something out before buying is really helpful. I’ve bought more apps that have a free trial than spending money on apps that I can’t try.

    • h3sean

      Karli,
      That pretty much sums up what ‘free consultation’ is when comparing it to apps.

  • http://marwickmarketing.com/ Christian Thomson

    Nice blog! I’m in the same boat in Canada, so made for an interesting read! Great work Sean.

    • h3sean

      Christian,
      Hope it helps out in rowing your boat there on the other side of the world!

  • enuj ressiled

    Hello Sean! AWESOME ARTICLE!! And just to let you know its point #13 about design then brought me here. I found you through your personal blog. I’m not into SEO or even a techy, but I came here from your personal blog via the article Taming the Tongue by clicking on the link in the paragraph titled “A Little Back ground.” which I found through … get ready for this!!!…. the GRAPHIC you used there. Which I found doing a random search for images under Google images looking for a graphic to use for a Bible study I.m putting together on the power of your words. Yes Good Design is worth the investment!

    Now Sean about the article, I do seminars for people over 50 who are changing careers and your article is chock full of potential methods which I am going to adapt and add to the current toolkit we use for our career changer seminars.

    So thanks my friend and God Bless you, your beautiful fiance, your team and your company. I’ve added you to my contacts, definitely send referrals for SEO services your way should I encounter companies in need. Again…Yes Good Design is worth the investment!

    PS: The link on your home page to your Google+ account with the personal photos of you and your team definitely adds a nice “human” touch that made feel like… I like this guy!

    • h3sean

      Enuj,
      Thank you for that very heartfelt comment :) you made me feel like I need to keep that G+ picture in my sidebar!

      Feel free to use the stuffs I have here. They are for you and for all the readers of SEO Hacker ;)

      God bless you!

  • James Bradrick

    Sean,

    A good read. About teams – if what you want to accomplish requires more energy and talent than you alone possess, then you need a team. The team you build to achieve your visions becomes your most important asset. As long as your team believes that there mission is the same as your mission then your vision will be your reality. This concept places team nurturing as priority number one. Take care of your team and they will take care of you. Your task as CEO is then 2 fold. 1) Visionary – You are the one who defines the future. 2) Team Care Provider – You are responsible for the well being of those who will make your vision a reality. You are a fortunate individual if you realise and can embrace this concept. For you can accomplish great things. If not, best to work solo. Thanks for the post.

    • h3sean

      James,
      I’m still in the process of really learning and knowing these things. Thanks for your insight. It sounds like you’ve been there before.

  • Akash Agarwal

    It’s a good post. I really learned from it. It’s very helpful to me. Thanks a lot
    for this information.