Starting An SEO Agency? Read These 35 Lessons

seo agencyIf you are thinking about starting an SEO agency, then stop what you are doing right now and read this.

Let me tell you a quick story:

Two years ago I packed up my stuff and drove from California to St. Louis, Missouri.

I wanted to be with my girlfriend (now fiancée) and I also wanted to pursue my dream of running my own business.

My girlfriend’s parents were kind enough to let me stay at their house until I found a job.

Or, until I was making enough money in my business to move out.

Since I didn’t want to be a moocher, I made a goal that I would be out of their house within a month (max).

So, here are the advantages I had when trying to start my business:

  • Less than $100 in my bank account
  • $0 in savings
  • $43,000 of student loan and car loan debt

But in all seriousness, the real advantages I had were:

  • A laptop
  • I knew how to do SEO
  • One credit card with a credit line of $1,000

I knew this would be more than enough to get my business off the ground.

And within one month, I achieved my goal.

I secured several clients through hustling on Craigslist and ranking pages on my site. These clients gave me enough revenue to move out my girlfriend’s parents house.

In two years, my SEO agency has grown from a single freelancer (me) to two full-time employees.

The experience and knowledge I’ve gained from these two years is beyond comprehension.

I want to share these experiences with you so you can avoid many of the mistakes I’ve made along the way.

What I have learned can help you with three things:

  1. get through tough times
  2. make sure you are maintaining the right mindset
  3. help you grow your business.

What I’m about to show you can help ANY business.

I may get “self-helpy” in this article because I’m speaking from real experience.

If you are cool with that, here are the 35 lessons I have learned running an SEO agency for two years:

Marketing Lessons

1. Practice What You Preach

Believe it or not there are SEO companies that don’t even rank their own site in the search engine.

If you are running an SEO business, then you should be getting the majority of your leads through SEO.

What’s a better demonstration of competency?

An SEO company that blasts businesses with cold calls? Or, an SEO company that’s rank well in the search engine?

It’s a no brainer.

I get 99% of my leads from the search engines.

The best part about practicing what you preach is that it makes selling easier.

All you have to say is “Well, how did you find us?” – BOOM.

Proof is in the pudding.

The idea practicing what you preach applies to ANY service business.

You should be able to prove you know what the heck you’re doing.

Don’t say you’re an SEO “expert” if you have never ranked a keyword.

Don’t say you’re a social media marketing “expert” when you only have 50 likes on Facebook.

Don’t say you’re a PPC “expert” if you have never made an ROI on ad spend.

You get the point.

Practice what you preach.

Go out and get results on your own.

It will not only build credibility, but it will make selling WAY easier.

2. Testimonials & Referrals Won’t Come Organically

It doesn’t matter how well you get can results and how happy your clients are.

They will not go out of their way to give you a testimonial or send you a referral.

Think about it: they are either A) running a business or B) acting as marketing director for a company.

They don’t get into work and think: “You know what I should do today?? I should go and leave the SEO company working for us a testimonial! I should spend my day trying to find referrals for this SEO company!”

Sorry.

Doesn’t happen.

You need to push your happy clients to get testimonials and referrals.

Believe it or not, sometimes asking isn’t even enough.

To get your clients to act, you should incentivize them.

For example, we offer clients a free month of SEO service when they send us a referral and we close them as a client.

A free month of SEO service is pretty valuable considering they would likely be saving $2,000 +.

Sales Lessons

3. Be Responsive to Leads (Or Lose)

It’s easy to sit back when you see an inbound lead.

But every second you waste is a second the prospect gets less interested in you.

It gives your competition another second to call before you.

Oh, you thought you were the only company they’ve reached out to?

Lol.

Don’t fool yourself.

For a big investment like SEO, businesses are going to reach out to least 3-5 different companies.

Being the first to respond is sometimes all it takes to win contracts.

I have had clients tell me that they picked my agency because we responded the quickest.

Here’s a strategy you can use to become more responsive to leads:

  • Setup a separate email address just for web leads.
  • Configure Gravity Forms or whatever form you’re using to push new web leads to that email.

Note: if you are using Gravity Forms, make sure you use a @gmail.com email address. Otherwise your leads will get delayed or you won’t get them at all because of the filters.

  • Enable push notifications on your computer or phone only for that inbox.
  • Respond immediately

4. You Don’t Have to Be a Car Salesman

Don’t forget, if you are using inbound marketing to generate leads, there is no reason to be pushy.

You aren’t making a cold call.

The lead has gone out of their way to contact YOU.

Call them, be calm, cool, and collected, and explain what your service is and what it can do for them.

Keep in mind:

You should always try to close over the phone.

Just understand that most businesses will need time to discuss and review proposals.

If you are speaking with a smaller business, you can often close over the phone. If you are speaking with a marketing director, then it will likely take weeks for them to come to a decision.

5. Follow Up

This feels like sales 101, but following up is key.

I wouldn’t have some of the clients I currently do without following up.

Marketing directors and business owners have a lot on their plate.

It’s your job to stay on top of their mind.

Do not allow your company to become an afterthought.

6. Always Be Prepped For Sales Calls

I was clueless when I first started out and would take on sales call without getting prepared.

I learned from this and developed a set of questions to ask every single prospect.

These questions allow me to see if the prospect is serious and whether they are a person I would like to work with.

I recommend that you develop a set of questions you ask every prospect.

Think long and hard about these questions.

Some of the questions I ask every time are:

  • Are you targeting a local or national market?
  • Have you done SEO in the past?
  • What are you currently doing to market your business?
  • Have you ever considered (Insert service like social media, PPC)?

There are many others, but if you are starting a marketing agency, these can help you out.

7. Be Smart With Your Sales Language

Get used to using embedded commands in your conversation. Here’s an example of an embedded command I would use on a sales call:

“Alright, so what’s going to happen when you sign up is….”

See what I did there?

I’m implying that they are going to sign up.

Aside from proven psychological principles, you need to let the prospect SPEAK.

Great salesmen are also great listeners.

Mindset Lessons

8. You Are Disposable (No Matter How Good You Are)

If you take anything out of this article, then please make sure this is it.

No matter how good your service is, you or your agency are ALWAYS disposable.

The client is always going to value THEIR business over yours.

If they are having financial issues, SEO will be the first thing they cut.

It doesn’t matter how “buddy-buddy” you were with the client.

When it comes to their business, they are always going to do what’s best for them.

Knowing this, you need to always have the mindset that your client could leave you tomorrow.

9. Be Selfish

I’m all about the client-first mantra, but why are we in business?

Many of us are in business to achieve financial freedom and live a better life.

So, why do so many of us work ourselves to death over a single client?

I’m not implying that you should do poor work.

I’m saying that you need to stop acting like you are a commodity.

HAVE BOUNDARIES.

Let says a client is paying you $500 a month and your rate is $100 an hour.

Then you should only work 5 hours a month for that client.

Do not let the client convince you otherwise.

If you work a single second longer on that client, it will take away from other clients.

Not only that… It will also take away precious time for you to work ON your business instead of in it.

10. Be Cheap

When I first started my agency it was just me and many VAs. I outsourced everything and paid stupid amounts of money for link placement. Some of these vendors scammed me and many of the link placements sucked or got removed.

Just like the previous section, you need to set a budget for each client. If you want your profit margin to be 70%, then you have a budget of 30% to spend on any client.

Do not exceed it.

11. Never Get Complacent

You must focus on growing YOUR business every single day.

Never think that your clients are going to work with you forever.

Always work with the mindset that you could lose all your income tomorrow.

Will this happen? Not likely.

But never EVER get complacent with what you have.

Always keep pushing and trying to grow.

Clients will come and go, but your business is your life.

If it’s not, then you might as well give up now.

Half ass dedication doesn’t work.

12. Never Stop Trying to Grow

Grow or die.

It’s challenging in service-businesses to have a growth mindset.

That’s because you have to fulfill the work.

If you don’t fulfill the work, you lose clients.

But this goes back to one of my original points: “Be Selfish”.

You have to keep trying to grow your business.

No matter how many clients you have.

No matter how much money you are already making.

Focus on growth like you don’t have a single client.

Have the mindset that you could lose it all tomorrow.

Complacency will kill your business.

13. Stop Being a Commodity and Become an Asset

Commodities are disposable.

Assets are hard to let go.

Give your client so much value that it would actually be painful for them to stop paying you.

When you reach that stage, you become an ASSET.

You can demand prices YOU think are fair.

Instead of the prospect telling you how much you should get paid.

Always remember that price is nothing more than perceived value.

The more valuable you are to a company, they more they are willing to pay.

14. Avoid Startups/Young Businesses

As a general rule of thumb, I recommend you avoid any type of “startup” company or young business.

Many young businesses are not making money and likely cannot afford your services.

They think it’s easier to hire someone to grow THEIR business.

But in fact, all they are doing is creating an environment where they rely on other people to be successful.

When you don’t get results in the first week, they will be calling and questioning your every move.

This isn’t because your service doesn’t work or because you are doing something wrong.

It’s because:

  • they know they can’t afford your service
  • they don’t know how to actually grow a business
  • they would rather talk on the phone than actually hustle

Do yourself a favor and avoid these businesses.

At least until they take accountability.

AND recognize that the growth of their business is their responsibility.

SEO is the long-term game and it should SUPPLEMENT a business’s other forms of marketing.

Productivity Lessons

15. Don’t Let Email Control You

I am a recovering email inbox checker.

I used to have Gmail open in a tab ALL DAY and would check it hundreds of times a day.

Why?

Because I craved distractions.

Thanks to Tim Ferris, I learned how much of a killer this can be.

I changed my habits and I only check email twice per day.

This had a dramatic effect on my business.

It was liberating.

It gave me the confidence that I was in control, not the people emailing me.

I decide when to respond.

I decide how much time to spend on my emails.

I eliminated the feeling of anxiety and stopped rationalizing.

My thoughts used to be:

“O-M-G… I wonder is (insert client name) has email me… I better check..”

…or “I  wonder if I have a new lead”

…or “That vendor said he would finish today, let me check…”.

After you set a boundary, you no longer have to think about these things.

Did my business crumble because emails weren’t answered immediately? No.

Stay out of your email inbox.

Set a clear boundary of how many times you will open your email inbox everyday.

I recommend you use Inbox Pause when responding to emails to avoid getting trapped.

16. Create Systems & Processes

If you don’t have systems and processes, then you agency will live in chaos.

You need to have clear processes for:

  • lead gen
  • sales
  • service fulfillment
  • client retention

Many service-based business will have many moving parts.

Systems will bring clarity and end the chaos.

Use templates and all available software to make things easier.

We use Google Sheets, Dropbox, Excel, and Basecamp to run my agency.

Always try to keep things simple or you will suffer from decision fatigue.

Bringing me to an important point..

17. Avoid Decision Fatigue (At All Costs)

Decision fatigue is when you have to think about “what to do next”.

Fatigue sets in every time you must to make a decision.

How do you solve the problem?

Limit how many decisions you are making throughout the day!

Plan your day.

Keep it simple and know that most tasks almost always take longer than expected.

I keep it super simple with my agency.

We usually only work one project per day.

This keeps us focused on the task at hand and removes mind wandering.

18. Live and Die by 80/20

Now that I have employees I can spend 80% of my time trying to grow my business. I used to be a solo artist, I spent 80% of my time fulfilling the work.

I now have the ability to act as CEO.

Acting as CEO requires a different mindset than being a freelancer.

You must train and educate your team.

But the most important part is to teach them how to get clients results.

Without YOU.

I love using VAs, but nothing beats having employees who you can speak with in person.

As you know, I was a college baseball player, so I love having a team atmosphere.

You need to get to the point where you are spending 80% of your time trying to grow your business.

Don’t worry if you are on the wrong side of this equation right now. It doesn’t mean you can’t flip to a growth equation.

Here’s what you do to start making the transition:

Every week you should examine how much time you are spending on clients. Then compare that to “growth” based activities.

Begin the process of flipping the equation.

Try changing the equation by 1% each week. For example, you may be 80/20 for service fulfillment/growth right now.

Next week, you should try being 79% client fulfillment and 21% growth.

At this rate, you will be at 68/32 within a year. 68% of your time will focus on growth and 32% on client fulfillment.

You can be more aggressive.

Changing your mindset from scarcity to growth is beyond powerful.

You begin to act like a CEO.

You stop worrying about whether a client is going to leave you or not.

Your business grows because you stop spending the bulk of your time on maintenance tasks.

Stop being an employee and start being a CEO.

19. Leverage VAs

To achieve the goal of 80/20, you will have to use VAs or hire an employee.

You can’t do it alone.

Unless you want to feel like an employee for the rest of your life… I don’t think that’s the goal for 99.9% of self-employed individuals.

You started your own business because you want to be in control.

You left the 9-5 because you don’t want to be an employee!

You have the opportunity.

You just need to be willing to delegate tasks.

There are only so many hours in a day and you need to cherish every single minute.

You can delegate almost every task in one way or another.

Lessons Clients Have Taught Me

20. Your Client’s Success is Your Success

Clients want results!

If they are successful, then your business will be successful as well.

The opposite is true.

If they majority of your clients are NOT successful, then it will bring your business down.

Before you start taking clients on in ANY industry, make sure you have a clear understand of how to get results.

Remember what I said earlier?

Practice what you preach.

21. Some Clients Will NEVER Be Happy

There are always going to be bad seeds.

There is a small percentage of clients who you will never please.

In the beginning, they will critique ever small detail of your work.

They will be ones complaining about communication… Even though you spend more time on them than any other client.

They will complain weekly, sometimes daily about the results.

Once you get them results, they will complain about not being #1 for every single keyword.

Sounds fun right?

These types of clients will make you lose sleep at night.

That is, if you let them.

I’m extreme and I will straight up fire clients who are time-sucks and unreasonable.

Just realize one unfortunate thing:

No matter how good your discovery/vetting phase is, you will end up with a bad client or two.

All you can do is have a strong discovery phase to avoid it becoming a regular occurrence

22. Your Most Unreasonable Clients Will be Your Cheapest Clients

I’m speaking for my business and in general.

In my experience, my worst clients are almost always my cheapest clients.

Remember, price is relative.

Someone who is paying $500 a month may think that’s a colossal amount.

They may think they deserve the world because they are paying $500 a month.

But in reality, we know that $500 a month is pennies for a real SEO campaign.

23. Always Have a Contract

Contracts are good for both parties. If a prospect doesn’t want to sign a contract, then run for the hills.

Trust me.

If they don’t sign a contract, they will be a problem down the road.

You will be kicking yourself (like I have), asking “why didn’t I have this person sign a contract.”

24. Set Clear Boundaries With Clients

At the onset it’s super important to set clear boundaries. What are your agency’s hours of operation? How often are you going to be updating and speaking with the client? How much communication will be over the phone vs email?

Set these boundaries early on.

Otherwise, you will have clients calling you at unexpected times. This disrupts your teams workflow and hurts productivity.

Remember:

As much as some clients would like to believe, they don’t own you.

25. Know That Most Clients Won’t Pay On-Time

Invoice goes out of the 1st of the month.

Days, weeks, and sometimes a month goes by with no payment.

Although you haven’t received payment, the client believes you should still be working.

That’s fair right?

Imagine going into a traditional 9-5 job and your boss told you he wasn’t going to pay you for 30 days.

He MIGHT pay you within 30 days, but it could even end up be 45 days.

That’s cool right?

You would raise hell.

Please listen to this word of advice:

Clients who don’t pay on-time, will never pay on-time.

Don’t waste your breath and struggle to keep clients like this.

They are selfish.

Fire them because there are many others who will pay on-time.

26. Beware of BUYER Scam Artists

There are some major scam artists in the B2B world that you need to watch out for.

You have likely heard many stories of how SEO companies screwed people over.

But how many times have you heard about buyers screwing companies over?

It’s happened to my agency.  On a couple of occasions.

Here’s how it happens:

In the beginning everything’s cool and they join your service.

You do everything that you said you were going to do, and BOOM, after a month they open up a PayPal dispute for no reason.

Do you see what’s going on here?

You do all the heavy lifting for the first month and then they can open up a PayPal dispute and get your service for free.

The good news is that as long as you have actually done the work, you will win the PayPal dispute (I have).

To avoid this you need to have a contract and consider not accepting payments through PayPal.

Serious businesses will have a business credit card or will be willing to send you checks.

Try to avoid the PayPal game as much as possible.

27. Never Negotiate on Price

I made this mistake for well over a year. I would send off a proposal with one price and hope they would accept it.

While this worked a lot, it also costs me several thousand dollars in contracts.

That’s when I discovered that I needed to have three pricing options.

“DUH”, right?

Here’s what I discovered after researching it further:

When you have one option, they forced to choose “Yes” or “No”.

When you have three options, they forced to choose within the three options.

Sure, they can still say “No”, but it decreases the likelihood.

28. Stop Saying “Yes”

I’m going to be honest, I get a lot of leads and I say “No” to 99% of them.

At this stage in my business, I can tell who can and cannot afford my services.

I also have standards.

As you know, I won’t work with startups. But I also won’t work with any business that I believe has morality issues.

Some examples are gambling, escorts, porn, or anything illegal.

Why would I ever want to associate myself with such businesses?

That’s why I say “no”.

I also say “No” to cheapskates.

It’s easy to lured into what seems like “easy money”.

You have a client willing to pay $500 a month for SEO.

How could you turn that down?!

Simple.

You say “No”!

I’m not trying to scale my business with cheap clients.

That’s not my business model.

There are other SEO companies who can take on cheap clients and are playing the quantity game.

I’m not.

You need to be realistic with yourself.

Do you have the capacity to scale a business of cheap paying clients?

Or would it be easier to take on less clients who paid more?

You need to consider these questions.

If you don’t, you will have tons of cheap clients who expect the world. Cheap clients who will hold your business back. Remember what I said?

Be selfish. Say “NO”.

29. Take a Profit-First Approach

What’s the point of being in business if you aren’t making a profit?

There are companies like Amazon that don’t make a profit, but I’m not Amazon.

I started my business to escape the 9-5 and be my own boss. I also did it to make money.

You should structure your service and fulfillment to turn a profit.

What I do is simple.

I have a profit percentage goal. Everything I do is to reach that goal.

30. Fulfillment is Hard

Every results-based business struggles with one thing: getting results 100% of the time.

It doesn’t matter how good you are.

I’m willing to go out on a limb and say:

There isn’t a single SEO agency with 30 + client who hasn’t struggled to get results.

At LEAST once.

I have struggled to get a client results before.

It’s not because my strategy doesn’t work or because I don’t know what I’m doing.

It’s because I didn’t screen the client well enough.

I ignored obvious red flags in the discovery phase because I was chasing money.

Here are the two biggest mistakes I’ve made:

  • Underestimating how long it would actually take to rank
  • Underquoting how much it would actually cost to rank

These two combined lead to frustration on both sides.

To avoid both of these situations, make sure you screen every client down to the last detail.

Do not sign any client on until you know 100% that they are

A) paying enough to get results

B) and you are 110% confident that you can get them results.

Don’t chase money because it will end up hurting you.

Basic Business

* I’m not a tax, law, or financial advisor. Everything I’m going to show you in this section is from experience. Consult with an expert.

31. Learn About Taxes

If you don’t understand taxes, you will get destroyed.

I’m speaking from experience here.

In my first full year of business, I didn’t adjust my quarterly tax estimates. Even though my business was much larger than the previous year.

Guess what happened?

I owed $25,000 in taxes and had to contribute $36,000 to my solo 401(k) just to avoid MORE tax burden.

The worst part is that I had to give up that amount of cash in a small amount time.

It sucked, and I pledged that I would never let it happen again.

The next year, I changed my LLC’s tax status to an “S-Corp”.

I also made sure to contribute to my retirement account on a monthly basis to avoid having to give up one lump sum of cash.

Why am I telling you this?

Because I don’t want you to make the same mistakes!

Learn about taxes and talk to a CPA.

32. Structure Your Business Right

I started my business as an LLC, but got taxed as a sole proprietor. As I explained above, I got killed on taxes because of this.

In 2015, my business is still an LLC, but is now taxed as an S-Corp.

In essence, I pay myself a reasonable salary like an employee. After I’ve paid myself a reasonable salary, I can take distributions from the business.

The reason why the S-Corp is awesome is because:

  • My salary is tax deductible
  • I don’t have to pay self employment or payroll taxes on distributions

I recommend research and find out if your current business structure is benefiting you.

33. It’s Easy to Spend, It’s Hard to Save

When money’s coming in, it’s hard to be frugal. Just remember that every dollar you spend, is a dollar that could have grown your wealth.

Basic personal financial principles also apply in business.

Don’t spend more than you make. Save money. Etc.

34. Diversify Your Income Streams

If 100% of your business revenue is coming from one source, then you need to sit down and think about that.

What if that one revenue source disappeared tomorrow you had no income?

That’s a loaded question, but you get the point.

You need to have more than one income stream.

You need to have the confidence that if every client left you tomorrow, you would still be fine.

Trust me, having more than one source of revenue gives you incredible leverage. When you have many revenue sources, you don’t have to play the price game with clients.

You can decide how much you want to work for and what clients you want to work with.

You will stop chasing money.

If you run a service-based business, then there are many options for you to explore.

For example, in addition to client-side of Gotch SEO, we also offer white label SEO services and SEO training.

The point is, one revenue sources ties you down.

Think long and hard about how you can diversify your revenue.

35. Invest in Yourself

As cliche as it sounds, you have to invest in yourself.

It’s crazy to think that I have become such an avid reader and learner.

In school, I repulsed at the idea of learning anything more than I had to.

Now, I can’t learn enough.

To get more, you have to be more.

As I mentioned before, you need to become an asset.

YOU have to worth paying money for.

Conclusion

There are many other lessons I’ve learned, but these are the ones that stood out the most in my mind.

Whatever you are doing, keep hustling and always trying to improve yourself.

I know I still have so much to learn and I can’t wait.

Did any of my experiences relate with you or your business?

Let me hear about it in the comment section.

Talk you for reading!

– Gotch

About the author

Author
Nathan Gotch

Nathan Gotch is the founder and SEO director at Gotch SEO. Listen in to our new podcast, The SEO Life or watch some of our actionable SEO training videos on YouTube!

Comments

  1. Nathan: I’ve stumbled across several of your posts now, typically through Google searches. I have to say that i find a lot of your content is not necessarily “groundbreaking”, but rather common sense, human and honest depictions of many timeless SEO strategies and issues, struggles etc. facing anyone doing SEO in this day and age.

    For this i am very appreciative, and since discovering your blog I am finding myself reading it on a regular basis. This is very refreshing to me, because as one who has been in this game over a decade, I’ve pretty much stopped reading any other SEO blog. I really appreciate your ability to share your expirences and discoveries in a way that is highly professional but also human. It shows you’ve been there and expienced first hand everything you’ve written. I see a lot of what I call “arm chair SEOs”, writing about things they have either theorized about or read elsewhere, but never actually tried. This really is the norm in my opinion, in short, thank you for sharing your honesty experiences here. It is refreshing and appreciated.

  2. That’s an awesome article Nathan. I’m a big fan of your btw.

    I was literally having a sleepless night before I read this article. Does calm my nerves now realizing it is possible, it’s just that its gonna take hard work.

  3. Hey Nathan,

    How could you rank your website for short-term keywords easily? I tried for my website but i couldn’t rank. I’m a regular user of your blog. Let me know if you have any shortcuts 😉 I searched on google as “SEO Agency” and I’m landed here. You are really a great SEO consultant.

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