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Lessons Learned from Starting an SEO agency

What do Google, Microsoft, Apple, and Facebook have in common? Aside from being filthy, fantastically rich companies, all of these modern day giants were at one point little startups without much experience or capital.

The great thing about starting an SEO agency is that if you are awesome at ranking pages for keywords, blogging, PPC, and social media, then starting the company is actually the easiest part; get yourself a website, a nice logo, slap a name on it, and voila!

The problem is that many young entrepreneurs don’t know how to grow a startup. It’s a lot of work, but it can be done if you hustle, work hard, and stay focused on your goal. I did it while living at home, with no money in the bank, a laptop, and virtually no credit to speak.  If I can do it, then anyone can. The great thing is that this information will not only help you get through tough times and grow your company, it pertains to just about any internet business.

Here are the lessons I have learned from starting an SEO agency. Learn them now before learning the hard way!

Lessons for marketing your SEO agency

  • Show, don’t tell your clients how great you are

For those who do it right, SEO can be a very lucrative practice. After all, you are helping your clients rank high on a search engine that drives trillions in commerce each year. The drawback is that many get into the business just for the money, outsource everything, and have little clue about how SEO actually works.

You need to show your clients how great you are at SEO, not tell them. Rank your pages high on Google, write blogs that get hits and shares, get a lot of social media likes, and run a profitable PPC campaign. When your clients see that you really are an expert it makes it a lot easier to sell your services. When they ask you if your services can rank their company’s site, just ask them how they found you.

    2) Be pushy with testimonials and referrals

Nothing is better than a testimonial or referral from one of your clients. It’s been the building block of business since business began. People trust advice from their colleagues and friends far more than they trust ads. But getting them doesn’t come easy, and they certainly won’t just fall in your lap.

There are two ways you can go to get them:

  • Be pushy- don’t be impolite, but be a bit pushy. Ask for them and say why you want one.
  • Make them an offer they can’t refuse- I offered to work for free on certain projects if clients gave me good testimonials, and offering incentives for referrals is even better. If they refer a friend, they save money when you close the deal.

How to sell your startup to clients

3) Coordinate your infrastructure to emphasize response time

Yes that was a mouthful, but let me explain. Responding to leads is the single most important part of the sales process. You are not the only company that a business has reached out to, trust me. Every second that you let tick by is another second that a company can swoop in and take your business.

One time I had a client say they went with me because I was the only one that responded the same day. I also had another client exclaim “wow, you’re fast!”. There’s no better way to wow your clientele than by outperforming their expectations in the first meeting.

 How to emphasize response time:

  • First, create a separate email address solely for leads. This will help you stay on top of exactly who is reaching out to you
  • Configure your forms to send emails solely to that web address(use Gmail if using Gravity Forms to avoid spam issues)
  • Set up push notifications ONLY for that email

By coordinating your company’s infrastructure you can help make your response time miles ahead of your competition. All it takes is a good first impression sometimes.

4) The age of the hard sell is over

When most people think salesman, they can’t help but think of the slimy guy in an ugly suit selling a used car to some uninformed Joe, or worse, they think of Robert De Niro screaming at a couple asking them  “DO YOU WANT THIS CAR OR NOT?”

The truth is that the age of the hard sell is over, and it won’t be necessary for your company. Since you will be getting most of your leads organically(see #1), your clients are reaching out to you. They are already beyond cold and heading down the sales funnel. Be calm, explain what your services can do, and try to close them over the phone. A few tips I’ve learned over the years for sales calls:

  • Focus on the customer first
  • Don’t talk too much
  • Learn about their business before making the call and relate your services to them
  • Speak like the sale is a done deal(for example, tell them that they will rank for a certain keyword once you get started)
  • Be friendly. Talk to them about where they are located(Wiki it if you have to)

Sometimes selling something is about everything but the product.

5) Don’t forget to follow up

Not sure why this one even needs to be included, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen entrepreneurs not follow up with a client. They aren’t trying to give their money away. Business owners and marketing directors have a lot to deal with every day. Be sure to ping them once in awhile.

6) Be prepared for calls and use the right language

The difference between a good company that gets business and a good company that doesn’t usually comes down to selling ability, and selling ability is about being prepared. You need to do your homework and be ready for any situation that comes down the telephone line. A few tips for preparation are:

  • Learn about the company
  • Go over your script(you have a script outline, right?)
  • Make a quick synopsis of your services so you don’t constantly say “umm”

Another great tip for selling your startup’s services is to focus in on the right questions. You need to be a journalist in this respect: ask the questions necessary to get the answers you want. A few to ask might be:

  • Do you hope to rank nationally or locally?
  • Do you need social media help?
  • Have you done SEO before?
  • What is your current marketing strategy?

A successful SEO agency will want to know everything it can about its customers before starting business with them.

When it comes to language, use the power of suggestion. Like we said earlier, speaking confidently and as if the deal is already done helps move people along the sales funnel. No political candidate ever says “if the people decide that I might be a good leader, then I’d like to lower taxes”. They say “when I am elected, I WILL LOWER TAXES”. They act as if they’ve been elected. You could say “once we get your first 3 blog posts out, we will measure the results on x and x keyword”. Act like you’ve signed the deal already.

Psychological lessons for SEO agencies

7) Get over yourself

This isn’t friendship, family, or romantic relationships; this is business. If you aren’t delivering results or if the company finds someone better, then you are history. If a company is having money trouble, then your services are going to be one of the first things cut. It’s about making money in the end.

Being friendly in business transactions is great, but remember that it’s in the hopes of being a profitable partnership. You need to realize that your clients might be gone tomorrow. Don’t expect it, but be prepared.

8) Stand up for yourself

Your client is the in the market for services because they need them and believe they are worth something to their company. Don’t let them boss you around to the point of no return. You are not their slave or servant. If they are paying you for a service, then do it professionally, but don’t always go above and beyond doing extra things and dedicating extra time just because they ask. You need to set boundaries and stand up for yourself. This goes with everything from prices to time investment.

9) Be frugal

There is a difference between being frugal and being cheap. Cheap is not spending an extra dollar on your friend’s birthday present. Frugal is not wasting money on things you don’t need while currently building a business. If you are starting with nothing it’s probably because you don’t have much. Every dollar you spend is a dollar taken away from something from your business. Be smart.

10) Stay hungry

What was the difference between Rocky when he fought Apollo Creed and Rocky when he fought Clubber Lange the first time? Hunger. Many entrepreneurs don’t realize that sometimes their biggest obstacle is themselves. Some of us achieve a comfortable standard of living or enough clients to keep us busy, and don’t want much more than that. That’s fine in its own right, but if you truly want to build your company, you’ve got to stay hungry.

  • Don’t get complacent
  • Don’t take business for granted
  • Keep trying to grow
  • Keep looking for new clients
  • Find new challenges

Do anything it takes to stay hungry.

11) Become an asset to a company

Once you become an asset to a company, you become hard to let go. The difference between an asset and a commodity is that the latter gives the company some extra added benefits and the former provides value vital to the company’s success. I once had a realtor tell me that they got the majority of their business solely through the web content I provided. Do you think that person will ever go somewhere else?

It isn’t easy, but once you reach this level, you begin to dictate prices, schedules, and strategies with a far heavier hand. It’s worth it.

12) Look for the right clients

In the beginning it’s going to be hard to nab the big fish. Massive companies will want more solidified agencies to do business with. You should stick to small to medium-sized business and focus on speaking to management/owners directly. That’s where you can make your money and connections. Good clients make business more enjoyable.

Another word of advice is try to stick away from startups. First, they usually aren’t in the black enough to afford periphery services, and second, they usually want results immediately so they can start making money.

Your time is money. Don’t waste it.

How to stay productive when growing your SEO agency

13) Keep the tabs to a minimum

If you are anything like I was, then you have a million tabs open at all times of the day, thinking you can keep track of everything at once. Trust me, you can’t.

This is definitely true for email. Having all 5 of your Gmail accounts open at the same time will give you terrible anxiety and constantly take your attention away from the task at hand.

Set a certain time during the day to check your email. I usually limit it to twice(unless it’s with leads!). Not only will this increase your productivity, it will help quell your anxiety. Trust me, your business won’t go away.

14) Set a timer

Working on a long project, writing a long article, or dealing with multiple different things for your SEO company? Then set yourself a timer. I like to set mine at 30 minutes. I work until I hear the buzzer. Yes, it’s a bit Pavlovian, but it works. When the buzzer goes off, I take a break.

You can go grab a coffee, take a walk, stretch out a bit, or just surf the web, anything it takes to give your mind a rest. Once your short break is up(15 mins max!), then get back to work.

15) Create processes and streamline decision making

These two go hand in hand. Your SEO agency should have processes lined up for every part of the business. If you don’t have them, then things will become chaotic. You need to know how you will:

  • Generate leads
  • Sell your services
  • Fulfill those services
  • Retain clients

And probably a lot more than this. Since you will have so many different moving parts like assistants, marketing, selling, writing, researching, and social media, you need to have a system in place to keep it all together.

When it comes to decision making, you need to simplify it. Set up your day, and set a goal. Once a clear goal is set, decisions become easy to make. “Does this help achieve my goal”? If the answer is yes, do it. If not, scrap it.

16) Turn 20/80 into 80/20

When you first start out, you are going to be the one getting leads, selling services, fulfilling those services, and working to retain clients. About 80% of your time will be spent working, and the rest will be spent growing your business. You are in essence a freelancer/employee that works as a CEO on the side.

You need to flip that script at one point, grow your team, and start spending 80% of your time growing the business. If you are good at what you do, then it comes naturally. Once you become the CEO, your job turns into managing and growing your company, dealing with clients, and educating your team.

How to become the CEO:

  • Hustle- the more clients you find, the more money you make.
  • Delegate tasks- as the workload gets too big, start delegating tasks to others. They could be your first employees or you can outsource it.
  • Build slowly- see how much time you’re spending on your clients and how much time you are spending on fulfilling the work. Slowly, week by week, bring the numbers closer together.

The best thing about having your own company is promoting yourself from employee to the boss.

17) Get a little help from your friends

They don’t actually have to be your friends, but you eventually you need to start delegating tasks to someone else. This could be an employee or someone from an outsourcing agency. A virtual assistant(VA) can help you immensely in this sense.

As an entrepreneur, you need to focus your time on what you do best, not on managing little phone calls and messages. Trust me, as your SEO agency grows, the calls will pile up.

What your clients can teach you about owning a startup

18) A client’s success is your success

Your client should not be seen as an ATM that you constantly withdraw money from to spend on other things. You need to see your clients as an extension of your business. The more they succeed, the more you succeed. Simple as that.

Before taking on more business, make sure you understand how to get results.

19) You can’t please everyone

No matter what you do, there are just some people who will never be happy. You can give them the moon and they’d complain about craters and footprints on it. These people will critique everything you do, and prod you with questions relentlessly. Everything will be your fault.

You either won’t spend enough time talking with them, charge too much money, not get the result that they want, or not use the same strategies they think work, etc.

Live by this mantra: Bad clients are not a reflection of your work. Don’t let them get you down.

If they are that bad, tell them professionally that you don’t want to do business anymore.

20) Cheap clients are usually the worst

There is a reason that most of these people scrape and claw for every penny in these situations. Usually it is because they have no clue how the industry works, especially SEO. They might think that paying $300-$500 a month is a king’s ransom, when in reality it is nothing for a real SEO campaign.

These clients usually aren’t successful in their own business because they cut costs at every corner and don’t treat people well. A company that understands the value of your services and pays fairly usually won’t treat you(or anyone) this way.

21) Get it in writing

There’s something that you will learn the hard way in the business world: people only care about themselves and will try to screw you over. Good, honest, successful companies will never do this, but there are plenty that will. You need to have a contract with specified terms.

If they don’t want to sign a contract, they are going to be trouble. If there’s no paper trace leading back to them, then it’s your word against theirs. And that’s only if they respond to you!

22) Set clear boundaries

People treat you the way you let them treat you. Act like a pushover and people will walk all over you. It isn’t right, but it’s the truth. In business it is even more prevalent. Let your clients know upfront:

  • What your working hours are
  • When you are available outside of hours
  • If you are going on vacation
  • How much communication there will be
  • What they can expect from your services

If you start out by always being there, waiting on them hand and foot, then they will expect that from you until the day you pass on from this world. Be clear, up front, and professional about how you do things, and clients will respect you(at least the ones you want to keep).

23) Many clients won’t pay on time

Before we start crucifying selfish clients for utilizing your hard work and not paying on time, I want to make clear that many businesses are large operations with set payment times that might not match up with your invoicing schedule. There is nothing wrong with waiting for a payment from a trusted client that is clear with you on when payments will be.

OK, now to the more common reality. Many clients simply won’t pay on time because they are lazy. They care about getting THEIR MONEY not paying you YOURS. To make things better, you are still expected to work while waiting for them. Expect delays of days, weeks, months, or, well, you get the picture.

My advice? Don’t keep these clients unless they are bringing in a fortune for you. It isn’t worth the headache to constantly chase them.

24) Shady people will try to scam you

You need to be prepared for the worst with people. There are many shady scam artists lurking in the shadows of the web.

I had one client Skype with me, lay out in detail what they wanted, take my work and never send money or respond to me. It wasn’t worth the fight to get it from them.

Another common scam is when buyers take your SEO services for the first month and then open a Paypal dispute. This is why you need everything in writing. If you keep the documentation, you will win the dispute and tarnish their reputation. Revenge can be sweet.

Try to background check clients as much as possible, and avoid Paypal if you can. Legit businesses will have accounts and credit cards.

25) Give pricing options

When you offer a service and give your clients one pricing option, you open yourself up to a lot of refusals. When there is no wiggle room, a client usually feels trapped. You need to give them the perception that they are in control. This is why pricing options are a great tool. Here are some tips I’ve learned:

  • The power of 3- try not to offer more than 3 options. Give them spiffy names and different prices.
  • Create the perception of better value- use bolds, colors, wording, prices or whatever you can to show how one package is more valuable than the others. It could be your most popular, most profitable, or just easiest package for you.
  • Give them incentive to move up- one trick that really helps sales is to offer a basic package, but then offer a lot more for a little extra in another package. Car dealerships that are selling a 2010 model car for $5,000 usually offer a 2012 for $6,000. It’s 2 years newer and ONLY $1,000 extra. See the power?

Let the client feel like they are in control and give them options!

26) Learn to say no

In beginning, you might be desperate for clients for your SEO agency startup, but one lesson I’ve learned from growing my company is that quality far outweighs quantity. You need to learn how to spot the right clients. I always try to avoid:

  • Companies in shady businesses like gambling, adult entertainment, spamming, or anything that’s illegal. Don’t get involved in that
  • Cheap companies that don’t understand the value of my services
  • Clients who want blackhat SEO tactics

Don’t be lured in by easy money. Associating your company with ones like these is a recipe for disaster.

27) Show me the money!

You are in business to make money, escape the 9-5 world, and live the life you’ve always wanted. Don’t forget that. You are not a charity. There is nothing wrong with giving discounts to get work, doing favors, or having fair prices, but you should never short change yourself. If you keep getting clients, then you are doing something right. Set a profit margin and get there.

28) Results are hard to get

Even battled hardened SEO professionals can struggle to get results. Don’t ever underestimate how hard it could be to rank for certain keywords. The two biggest mistakes I’ve made with my SEO agency are:

  • Underquoting costs
  • Underestimating the time it would take

This is going to make clients angry and hurt your business relationship. You need to make sure that you are getting the right kind of clients. The ones who understand this and know that they have to pay to get results.

Don’t sign clients on unless you are certain you can get them the results they want.

Basic business lessons for startup companies

*I am an entrepreneur, not a lawyer, accountant, or anything like that. Consult with a professional because this is all from experience.

29) Death and taxes

These are the only two certainties in life. It’s best to learn about them before it’s too late. The good thing about being an employee is that it is usually all taken care of for you. As an entrepreneur, you are responsible for yourself. You need to learn about:

  • Encorporating
  • Contributing to retirement funds
  • Quarterly tax payments
  • Tax benefits for different corporations
  • Write-offs

And plenty of other things that only a CPA can tell you. Getting your taxes wrong or making mistakes along the way can cost you dearly and ruin your business. Don’t make those mistakes.

30) Saving isn’t easy

It is a lot harder to save money away than it is to spend it. When you have a lot of clients and money is rolling in, you are going to have trouble not spending it on the things that you want. You worked for it, so you’ve earned the right to get whatever your heart desires, but remember that success can be fleeting.

Remember that you can’t spend above your head. Be smart.

31) Diversify your revenue

Having a successful company is great and takes a lot of hard work, but there comes a point when you need to think about diversifying. Not only is it an incredible revenue stream, it helps give you the confidence and security you need to negotiate with clients. While building my startup I continued freelancing to make sure didn’t always need money.

Many entrepreneurs decide to branch out and look to other revenue streams. Many SEO companies startup other services in different areas of the industry. Some try their hand in educating, others try consulting.

Think about branching out to keep your revenue streams healthy.

32) Grow as a person

It might sound cliche, but growing as a person is just as important as growing your company. A successful business can give you many new opportunities. With your extra income you could:

  • Take classes and learn new skills
  • Study a new language
  • Travel the world and meet new people
  • Start a charity and help those in need
  • Educate people
  • Help your local community

And pretty much anything else your heart desires. Read as much as you can and learn as much as you can about everything. History, politics, geography, and anything else that might sound interesting.

The best part about diving in head first into business and bumping your head is that you get smarter the next time around. Building a startup from the ground up is not easy, but these lessons I learned while building my SEO agency will go a long way in helping you avoid the same mistakes that I made.

Which lessons did you learn along the way when starting a company? How have you grown from them? I’d love to hear about it.


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