How To Start And Scale an SEO Agency #2
- The Journey to Starting an SEO Agency or Becoming a Freelancer
- The Challenges of Building a Team for Your Agency
- Top Tips for Selling SEO Services
- Getting Clients to Focus on What They Actually Care About
- The Importance of Humility When Communicating with Clients
- How to Control Emotions During Conversations with Prospects
- Finding Higher Paying Clients as a Freelancer
- What is Different About SEO Work When You Scale It?
- Handling Objections When Pitching Services to Prospects
- Don’t Start an Agency as a ‘Get Rich Quick’ Scheme
Deepak: Hello everybody. Welcome back to the second episode in the series How To Start and Scale an SEO Agency. For the people that are familiar with the Glaswegian face that I've got next to me, you all know Mr. Ross. Ross, hello. How are you?
Ross: Very good Deepak. How are you? Thank you for inviting me to this one. This is a slightly different format than I'm used to. I've never had anyone grill me like this since I was in a police interrogation cell so I'm looking forward to it.
Deepak: Absolutely, absolutely. I thought that this would be a welcome change from talking about technical SEO or otherwise and we will at some point get to the police part. For those of you who don't know Mr. Ross, he is the founder of Type A. It's an SEO agency based in London and I've been excited about this one for a little while actually.
You go over to LinkedIn, you look at a person's history to get a sense of their professional career. I guess I'd love to, first of all, broadly speaking before we get into the SEO stuff, you're from Glasgow, you're in London. Was that journey SEO-related or was it completely different? How did that come about?
Ross: It was very SEO-related. When I started out, I actually started doing a degree...called IBML, which was International Business in Modern Language, which sounded really fancy, but I didn't really want to do it. I come from a Presbyterian family who had their whole mantra as, "If it's hard and difficult and not nice, you're probably doing the right thing." I think a lot of people can relate to that.
I was doing this thing and I started to build my own websites and stuff making the local florist websites and I was working at Wetherspoons as well. Wetherspoons I was taking home £50 a weekend. And then my mum's friend who is a florist is like, "Oh, there's some money for that website. £300."
I joined a company called Big Mouth Media as an SEO exec, the first account they gave me was boots.com. I remember at the time that was like, "Why am I junior getting given this utterly massive account?"
Deepak: That's a big deal.
Ross: Then I started freelancing on the side, then eventually I was like, "Freelance and affiliate is making me considerably more," so I thought it was then the time to start my own thing.
The Journey to Starting an SEO Agency or Becoming a Freelancer
Deepak: I'm just thinking about this from the perspective of some of the audience, right? I think that there's a lot of guys who are thinking about starting an agency, they're already running an agency, they're successful freelancers in different aspects.
First of all, what time period was that all over? From the moment that you got offered the £300 to do the website, because that sounds like it was a turning point when you realized that, "You know what? There's a different approach as opposed to working in bars, being artsy," that caught your attention. When was that? If we trace the timeline.
Ross: That would be 2011, potentially. 2012.
Deepak: Okay, so 2011, 2012. At that time, where were you?
Deepak: Okay, brilliant. If we continue the narrative, it sounds like you bounced around within the space. When did the moment come when you decided to start taking this space seriously? Was it intentional or was it a series of fortuitous happy events that made you decide "right, this is my niche."
Ross: Yeah. I've always liked the freedom that money brings, so from a very young age it was always ... so my first business was actually selling potpourri door to door, as you can believe that. That's another discussion for another time.
I downloaded something called Rosalind Gardner's Super Affiliate Handbook, which was essentially an e-book that I bought for $500 at the time as a 17-year-old, which is essentially how to do keyword research. I was like, "Okay, that's interesting." And you start ranking things.
But there are no accidents in anything that I've done, everything was very meticulous and very deliberate. I appreciate that the timeline may look very accidental, but the way in which my brain works is everything is very, very meticulously thought out. I would have done it quicker if I wasn't such an analyst.
If you're thinking about going freelance or thinking about starting an agency, I'd really look at your motivations as to why you want to do that. One of the first things I would say is; make sure you've got a reasonable level of personal financial security before you do any of that because it will stop you from doing dumb things like saying yes to clients that are bad for you but are going to pay you a lot of money. And it'll stop you doing dumb things like taking out credit cards to pay for day to day expenses which, although it seems like a good short term solution, is actually a big, big hole that you can really get yourself into.
That would be my first thing. If you're going to freelance on the side of your job, build up a good income stream, have an audience before you start.
Deepak: It feels like you've had quite a particular mindset when ... because you said, you're an analyst, you think purposefully about each of the decisions that you've made. Would you say that there's a difference in respect of a mindset that you've fine-tuned, that you have to develop?
Because there were two things that you said; make sure that you don't spend on a credit card, make sure that you have personal finances in place. Has this advice come through lessons that you've learned along the way from some mistakes that you've made in the early days?
Ross: It came through observing what was around me. There's a lot of pretend wealth, in that there's a lot of people who are living in very modest situations, but driving a £100,00 4x4. A lot of things just didn't make sense until five or six years later when they're declaring bankruptcy and can't get a current account card and paying for everything in cash. Just being around that gave me a real sense of, "Don't do that."
So, why would you go freelance versus have a job? A lot of people say, "Well, a job's a lot safer." Absolutely not, especially in the agency world because people regularly are made redundant if you lose a big client and things like that. You have zero control of your ability to earn, it just felt like a real extreme marathon to be employed, whereas running a company feels like you're in complete control and everything that you put in will match on the way out.
One of my first ever jobs was in a place called Lloyd's TSB, it was. In a call center. I just remember seeing these guys who are in their 40s and 50s, people have a look when they've had all their hopes sucked out of them, and I think just seeing enough absolute misery makes you want to go do better.
Deepak: Guys, I think that Ross has said something pretty telling. My first job was at Deloitte, and I went to a networking event and got an opportunity to meet someone who's a lot more successful, further down the line. You meet the directors who are earning maybe £100 thousand. But what was interesting was looking at their eyes, and having a look at what awaited them, or what awaited me, rather, if that was the road that I carried on.
One of the things that you've of course mentioned, there's always that fear, as you said, or that whole safety blanket perhaps, that comes with the cushion of a regular paycheck, the cushion of employment.
The Challenges of Building a Team for Your Agency
How did you then also go from that space of being a person who was winning pitches, who was delivering, to actually building a team? There's always that fear that, "Well, now everything's going to be different because there's only one Ross." Could you talk a little bit about the challenges that come with trying to build a team to deliver?
Ross: I would say that my main challenge even now, is ordering people, managing myself and managing teams. This is actually where I was just very lucky to be born into the place I was born into. Scotland is pretty much a socialist country, it doesn't seem like that but it is.
My first two members of staff, if I hired them out of Edinburgh University, the Scottish Government paid for their entire year's salary, both of them. I had two full-time employees for a year for free, and a subsidized office. That makes it much, much easier. Then you can spend loads of time training people and building it up, then, of course, they've got friends, and because they're all student level or graduate level, you get a lot of really excited people coming in.
At the time, we were dealing with small retainers. I think our maximum retainer was £1600. We had a £300 a day freelancer, which most people in London if you're a freelancer, that's the low end of what a freelancer rate is, never mind an agency. My whole thing was just value, value, value. Set the prices low and hold for a very long period of time.
The dirty little secret about our transition over the last five years is; we lost probably about 70% of our total clients. Dramatic pause. The reason being is that first year, I was selling so much, couldn't hire fast enough, couldn't serve people properly, had no operating procedures in place, had no training in place and it was a very weird sink or swim environment. I just delivered horrific work.
You learn very quickly from that, that it's not just about you get the sales bit right..but once you do that, can you get the delivery and the management and the retention bit right? It's a whole complete thing.
The way I got from freelancer to starting, was I got a subsidy from the government which is not really the story everybody wants to hear, right? Because it feels like cheating a little bit, but ultimately before that happened I was running a book of about eight clients with a turnover of about £11,000-12,000 a month as an individual, and it just got way too much during seven days a week constantly, that's why I got some people.
Deepak: Well, first of all I don't think that it's a sell-out, with taking advantage of the subsidy. I mean, the reality is; I think that there's a lot of people who don't recognize the opportunities, always, that are in front of them. They don't take enough advantage of A; networking to B; just being aware, I think, of; do you know that you can get subsidies? Do you know that there are companies or organizations that pay for interns to go and work at an organization and that way their salary is subsidized?
Top Tips for Selling SEO Services
I want to touch upon something that Ross has spoken about, which I think is a challenge for a lot of people that are starting out, is; what have been your most effective learnings when it comes to the sale of SEO, and winning work? Has it come naturally? Was it something that you learned on the job? I'd love to get your thoughts on it.
Ross: Yeah, it absolutely did come natural. Doing door to door sales of potpourri actually really helped. First thing you learn is; know your audience and understand market research. You knock on the door and then there'll be some big, burly miner coming to the door like, "What do you want?" I'm like, "Do you want to buy dried ... never mind." The next door you'd be like, "Is your wife in?" Then you'd eventually craft the pitch to get to the right buyer in the house, then you'd eventually craft why they want this particular thing.
Selling SEO services: I've never sold SEO services in my life, but what I have done is I've productized all the different functions of SEO. We productize everything into stages and deliverables. There's always an outcome to everything that we sell, so we don't sell keyword research, we understand knowing what your customers are looking for.
We have a process called REST and BOOM. REST is; research, evaluate, strategy and tactics, which have got traditional SEO deliverables underneath them, but with an obvious outpoint for the business. BOOM is the implementation side of; fix the broken site, B, on-page, off-page and measurement. Packaging it up like that makes it much easier to sell. Productizing everything is how I've done all of this.
We've got frameworks for literally everything we do. For digital PR we have something called DISCO, which is; discovery, ideation, sign off, creation, outreach. Just break up your SEO process and make it a compelling sell, and build a story around it to help people really jump onto it. Because the thing is; SEO itself isn't that particularly challenging. I'd call it like advanced admin because that's really what it is. We're finding the problems and we're tidying up the website, really.
A lot of people, I see that they're approaching clients like procurement ... it's like you're in the sweet shop. "I'll have 10 DR30 links, I'll have 50 pages of broken links." It doesn't work like that and it's not compelling, it doesn't mean anything.
Deepak: Guys, this is, I think, a significant thing that differentiates, the way that you approach a pitch. The irony is that all of us have had it: you receive a lot of cold emails from a lot of other SEO agencies who've scraped you as part of a list, whether it's through your LinkedIn or otherwise, and they send you, "We'll do a free audit," or, "We'll do something."
Effectively, what I notice is that everyone is speaking the same language, so then it becomes really difficult to distinguish the best apple at the fruit market. Then you just start competing up on price. I think that when you differentiate yourself through REST, through BOOM, through DISCO, through all ... that's something that is unique to Type A.
Getting Clients to Focus on What They Actually Care About
Amiket asked a really good question which was; how do you pitch your idea to the client? How does that process work in terms of when someone wants to hear about how it operates? How do you go through that process if, for example, you get someone who says, "Well, what about keyword research?" Or, "I want to talk about the DA's ..." How do you manage those types of conversations?
Ross: You just keep drilling them until you work out what they actually care about. When someone comes to me and says, "I want 10 DR 50 links or whatever." I'm like, "Why do you want them?" "Because our competitors have got them." "Why does it matter to you that your competitors have got them and you don't?" "Because they're beating us when it comes to ranking for this particular keyword."
I'm like, "Why is that keyword important?" I'll just keep saying, "Why? Why is that keyword important to you?" "Oh, because we think that it's got X amount of traffic and it drives less." "Why is getting that traffic via that keyword important to you?" "Because we're looking to monetize and sell this product." I'm like, "Right, so it's about product sale, it's not about 10 DR 30 links." They're like, "Yeah, but that's the input to get the output." I'm like, "Well, I disagree."
I just drill and I just say, "Why? Why? Why?" until they get to something that's real and meaningful. I've come up with little quips as well, just to get them relaxing. A lot of clients are like, "We want to be number one for this keyword." I'm like, "You know something? I tried to pay my mortgage the other day with number one rankings, it didn't work. They said no." He's like, "I see what you're saying." I'm like, ”right...then you need to get over the obsession, especially with rankings”.
The Importance of Humility When Communicating with Clients
Deepak: The first thing for me is; there's a certain confidence to the approach that you have, which I think is really, really quite a significant thing. How do you deal with a prospect who thinks he understands SEO more than you?
Ross: I think approaching it with humility and vulnerability, which is not sales language at all, is really important in that instance. There's usually a reason why a prospect is trying to push their knowledge on you or trying to be dominant in a situation, it's usually because they're nervous and they don't want you to say anything they don't like.
I think the first thing you do there is just relax into it and you change the conversation from SEO to their business. When it comes to your business, I'm never going to be as knowledgeable as you because look at all the great work you've done to build it up. Perhaps you're right, perhaps you do know a lot more about SEO in this space.
However, over the last five or so years we've dealt with 100+ different websites, we've ranked 100s of 1000s of different keywords, and just use your experience and say, "I understand that you may have knowledge that's superior, but you do not have skills and the ability to execute that's superior.
Having the knowledge and having the skill to execute are fundamentally different things. If a client is saying that sort of stuff, that's defensive speech and you need to realize that, and you need to defuse the situation and you need to humble yourself and be a bit more vulnerable to them because ultimately you just can't move anywhere if it's like, "I know best, do this thing." You just ask them, "If you know best, why are we here? Why are you hiring me?"
Deepak: Guys, I think that's amazing advice. It's really interesting what you spoke of there, and I think this is a good learning point, I think, for everybody and I include myself in everybody, that coming from a place of humility is a huge thing.
When someone is on the attack, “I think we should do it like this. This is the approach that I think works best. Ross, I'd love to hire you for SEO and I want you to focus on this particular keyword because that's what the competition is doing." When someone comes to you from a place like that, it's really powerful when you move back from a place of appreciation saying, "Hey, I completely understand, I completely appreciate, that makes total sense."
How to Control Emotions During Conversations with Prospects
What I want to then ask is; when you get into conversations, how do you manage your emotions? How do you deal with a situation where you've got a particularly aggressive salesperson, let's say, who's trying to haggle you on price or haggle you on approach or some variation of the two. How does it work in those instances?
Ross: Having your systems nailed down so that it's very hard to argue with your approach is the way to do it. If someone's trying to nail me on price, for me that's just negotiation. With larger businesses; enterprises, the likelihood that they haggle you down is so low. One of the reasons I moved from Glasgow to London is because in Glasgow, if they can save £5, they will absolutely nail you to a cross to get that £5. London they care more about if it's done well and quickly.
If people are haggling on price, I will then haggle on duration. The old scoping triangle, I don't know if you're familiar with that, you can have it good, fast or cheap, pick two. They'll be like, "I want it cheap." I'm like, "Okay, do you want it good as well?" They're like, "Yeah." "Well, you can't have it fast so your 12-month retainer's now an 18-month retainer and I'll happily come down." If you sign longer contracts, they'll give you discounts, and that's it really. You're just honest, and sometimes you have to walk away.
We've definitely been in a situation where it was right at the very end stages, we spent loads of time and done tons of forecasting and lots of work for this person to get their proposal to a good place and they'll, at the last minute, try and flex a wee bit too much. If you're moving from freelance to agency or just starting an agency, it's important that you have some sort of financial security, so you can just say, "You know what? That's just not acceptable for me right now."
Or if they want to come down on price, we write a very detailed statement of work which literally has every single line out of what we're going to do and when we're going to do it. It takes ages to write them, but it's really important. We're like, "Okay, you want it for half price? Let's take out 50% of this stuff."
Having a statement of work, documentation is great to deflect emotion. If I'm negotiating with you, Deepak, and I'm like, "Deepak, you said you were going to charge me £10 grand a month, I want it for seven." Then me and you are at loggerheads. Direct their attention to the statement of work.
You then do consultative selling and help them sell it to themselves. "Can you show me in this statement of work, what shall we remove and what do you think is maybe fluff that you don't need? Where do you think we can help you save some money here?" You get them to do the bringing down for you, and a lot of the time they'll be like, "Well, I actually want all that stuff."
Finding Higher Paying Clients as a Freelancer
Deepak: Guys, you're hearing from a master. I'm learning as well, I'm getting this stuff for free which is brilliant. There's also a freelancing section to this audience. What advice do you have for the guys that are like, "Ross, £10 thousand a month ... you just said something that completely blows my mind. I'm overwhelmed, I'm still struggling with getting £500 or £1000 or a £2000 a month guy." What advice do you have for people that are still in that space?
Ross: You need to be looking at case studies in a really serious way and do not play a price game with people. Have an absolute floor. If it's SEO services you're selling as a freelancer, and let's say you're selling £500 a month-ish, it's very hard to do really good work for £500 a month. When it comes to telling the client what you're going to do, make sure you line item things like reports, time on phone calls. What I've noticed is for low-end SEO services, there's no real reporting and there's no real client interaction.
When it comes to getting rid of you because you're just like an annoying monthly expense that they don't really care about, it's really easy because they don't have a personal relationship with you, and how could they? Because you're charging them £500 a month, you're not going to go speak to them for an hour every week. That's utterly ridiculous.
One thing I would say, and this is for UK based people mostly, if you think of the average salary for a marketing executive, it'll be somewhere between £25 and £35 grand a year depending on what position you are in the country. Now that's about, what? £2K a month-ish, give or take.
That's what most small businesses will have to spend, and I think if you can show them that you can give them that value and show them that “actually, I'm like your outsourced marketing guy except I've got all these different functions. And not only that, because I'm freelancing, not in your business, I'm a tax write off.”
There's so many benefits to taking a really good quality freelancer, but the reason why businesses won't take it is because when you're at that level, you're not making a compelling enough case. Saying I'm going to come and do a tech audit, who cares? Not for two grand, you're not.
I would stop selling low-end services if you can. I know that's easier said than done, but you've got to start moving in that direction because there's not a lot of room to move. If you think about any marketing function, buying an ad in the yellow pages, the local newspaper, it starts at £1500 to £2000, so the notion that you're selling for lower than that is just utterly ridiculous. I would start bumping the prices up and being a lot more consultative. Get on the phone, get in front of them and do what we are doing right now.
It's building those relationships is so key, and if you're looking to do scale, I'd say take a step back. Don't be looking to get 30, 40 clients at £500 a month or £1000 a month as a freelancer. Try and get 10 at a much higher rate and just do a really good quality of work. The thing that propelled us was our case studies and then our ability to actually do the job.
Deepak: I think that this speaks to a wider, perhaps, challenge a lot of SEOs struggle with, which is the perception challenge, and the perception of what SEO is and what it does, and therefore how to position it.
What is Different About SEO Work When You Scale It?
I wonder, because one of the things that you spoke about when we were talking about SEO, actually when you scale it, the fundamentals in terms of the implementation don't change. Does the actual process in terms of how you position it, also change from the £500 versus the £5000, versus everybody else?
Ross: The small business, they'll want you to go in and do all of the things and just fix everything. In fact, there's some instances where you'll get log-ins to their CMS which is completely foreign to me. When people start saying, "Oh yeah, there's the log-in, log-in to that and get it all sorted." I'm like, "Well, that's a lot of immediate trust."
When you're into enterprises, larger clients, that completely changes. Reason being; even if you do, you're a traditionalist, you do stuff like a tech audit and then go to implement, there's a bunch of people in the organization that need to sign-off.
There's something called a RACI in consulting which you'll probably know from your Deloitte days. Work out who's responsible, who's accountable, who needs to be consulted and who needs to be informed, and break out your reporting like that. Before you do any work on a client's business, you need to be going in and you need to be interviewing all the people in that RACI to understand what they care about and how to get things done.
A classic example is us, we've done this big old technical audit on a half a million-page website, went to do the implementation and then we were met with seven people that we had to get sign off from. Because we didn't get the original requirements, we had to redo the entire thing because it just didn't hit their department's requirements.
It becomes more of business consultation and you're just happening to do it for organic search. That's the difference in that it becomes a lot more data and documentation driven, the higher up it goes.
Deepak: Okay. What's interesting there for me also, is the running narrative through the thread seems to be that you have to understand the business and what the business is actually trying to achieve. It feels like your approach, Ross, is a lot more holistic. II feel that when we talk about the agency, we're talking about business goals. We're talking about business objectives, and I feel almost like we're no longer talking about SEO.
Ross: Yeah, it's just that SEO happens to get you there.
Handling Objections When Pitching Services to Prospects
Deepak: One thing I want to point out to everybody listening; for all of you who are afraid, if you come from a place of financial security and work on solving that issue then you can be in a place where you're not afraid to walk away. There's power in that, there's a huge amount of power when you're pitching, whether you're coming up against objections, in many ways you talk about someone says that, "We can get that done in India for $100," I'm imagining that even at bigger levels, people allude to the same things.
How do you manage those kinds of objections in the moment? When you've got someone in front of you, when you talk about your process and someone tries to either dress it down or say, "But Ross, Deepak is offering what I think is the same thing for half the price." If we were to engage in a little bit of role play for the benefit of the audience, let's pretend that I'm asking Ross about $100 SEO. Ross has given me the pitch and I said, "Ross, with all due respect, I could get it done in India for $100 a month."
Ross: Absolutely Deepak, you can. You know something? If that's the price point you're coming at, then I'd encourage you to explore those options. If I give you a little bit of advice on that, and there is cultural and also time differences so you may want to look at perhaps having a project manager to make sure that all goes well, and perhaps someone just to check with regards to measurement and outcomes.
Although the work quality that comes out of India is incredibly high, understanding how we can plug that into your business and be available around the clock to understand your customers and things of that nature, might be a little bit harder.
Whilst I completely agree with you, you can get all of this functional stuff done in India for a much lower rate, and to pretty much the same quality, there's going to be a little bit of a challenge to actually brief what needs to get done when. The strategy side you'll ultimately need someone on the ground, unless you've got someone who can translate the cultures.
Deepak: That was brilliant. Guys, do you see what just happened? Do you see that Ross did not come back and start to attack me? He came from a place of empathy and understanding. I just listened and my emotion was, "Ross is open to it." There's huge power in being understanding, regardless of how outlandish a client's demands or requests might be.
All of these aspects that Ross has mentioned when we've talked about the process of the actual pitch, determining what is actually important commercially to a client as opposed to an individual keyword or a particular broken link, alongside understanding what is the actual type of client you should be going for, and how you should be spending your time? Then looking at the documentation, everything is ... guys, it's hard work, and there's lots of it.
Don’t Start an Agency as a ‘Get Rich Quick’ Scheme
I feel that now that marketing and the need for it as an external resource has become so established, that every man and his uncle and his dog is attempting to start up an agency. Could you just speak to the pitfalls of seeing this as a get rich quick scheme? What would be your advice to people in respect of the harder work versus the, "I'm looking for the silver bullet," scenario, Ross?
Ross: It's like any business. Unless you really love what you're doing, there's going to be a very high degree of misery because it's fine when you're well-rested and you get a little bit of money in the bank, and no one's stressing out to get the levels out the door. But when you don't have money in the bank, you've not slept very well and you've got five clients you're late on deadlines with, it changes your perspective a bit.
The longevity thing, I can not stress enough. If you're going to go on this adventure and start a business, which I think is a great idea, take care of your health and define your personal values before you do anything. If there's anything difficult that ever happens to you or a big decision you have to make, you get a set of values to fall back on. You already agreed with yourself internally and that's completely unshakable. If you do that, you're going to be absolutely fine.
Deepak: That's an amazing way to end today's webinar, folks, on how to start and scale an SEO agency. Ross, listen, I want to thank you for your time. I think that I learned a lot, I'm sure the audience have learned a lot and just looking forward to see everybody again for the next episode.
Ross: Thank you, Deepak.