9 Biggest Learnings Re: Running an SEO Business

by Jeff Quipp December 17th, 2007 

I've been running Search Engine People for 7 years now, and am just finally getting the company to the point that I know it could run perfectly without me in the picture at all. Don't get me wrong, I'm not planning on leaving or going anywhere. Its just that now, I can focus on working to my strengths, and taking the company to the next level of its evolution. We're currently a 15 person organization, and if everything goes according to plan should have slightly more than 30 people at the same time next year.

Given that New Years is fast approaching, I'd like to reflect not only on this past year, but on everything I've learned since launching SEP in the hopes that it can help others.

That said, here are 9 of my biggest learnings about SEO business management over the past 7 years:

1) Do not Focus On Rankings:
Instead, client attention should be focused on metrics closer to the actual value created (ie. ROI, Cost per lead, etc.). This is really important because as SEOs, "we cannot control rankings, only affect them". How can we be responsible and accountable for that which we have no control over?

2) Set and Manage Client Expectations:
This was a very key learning for me. I'd been involved in sales a good deal previously, but it became even more important in starting and more importantly growing Search Engine People. For long term client relationships, companies must ensure that actual results exceed what clients were expecting. Fail, and lose the client. Win, and they'll often be one of your greatest advocates.

The key learning here is that often we have very limited control over the actual outcome of our efforts (we have a good idea what we can achieve in a given time period). What we have a good deal more control over however is client expectations. So, manage expectations such that the client is expecting less than what you actually know you can deliver.

Win Win Scenarios
Image Courtesy: CartoonStock.com

3) Look for the Win-Win:
This is a philosophy; a way to look at life in general, and appears to be a fundamental principle in business. This must not only be practiced by business owners, but by employees, clients, and strategic vendors and alliances. The only way a relationship (and relationship) can be a long term relationship (and long term clients should be the goal since they are typically more profitable than short term engagements), is if both parties can win, and neither loses. Do not try to pull the wool over the eyes of others! Seems simple enough, but its rarely practiced, internalized, and made part of company culture.

4) 80/20 Rule:
Perfectionism in search, is not possible. The reality of the matter is typically that a client is agreeing to pay you a given fee per month, and you must get the client the biggest bang for his buck in a limited amount of time. As a businessperson, you then must make choices. What can we do this month, versus what can be done next month? In reality, it boils down to understanding that 20% of your efforts will generate 80% of the clients results, and knowing which activities constitute to that 20%. Failure to understand this "Pareto Principle" will result in you as a company being priced far too high.

5) Differentiate:
It bewilders me to this day, but I will argue that greater than 50% of businesses out there cannot effectively answer the question; "why should I purchase from you versus one of your competitors?", and least not an answer that is concrete and definable. Many will say they give better service but have no real benchmarks in place to check and test.

Well, SEO businesses are no different. Why should a possible client buy from you versus your competitors? Make sure you can answer this, and defend it in front of clients.

6) Professionalism:
I remember receiving a call from a perspective client in 2002 … from a large company. When I took the call he said, "you're the first company I've talked to that actually had someone answer the phone. I got answering machines at a couple of places, and even someone's mother who said her son (the SEO) was out at the moment". This resulted in a large contract for SEP, that remains with us to this day.

In reality, I got lucky, and just happened to be home at the time. I learned though, and the next day signed on with a virtual office, and they would answer company calls, and redirect them to me. We've signed on many more fortune 500 clients since then. The key learning for me; prospective clients were much more likely to purchase if they perceived we were professional and larger. It was also that day that I began to condition myself to never refer to the company as "I' again … it was alway "we", even when just me.

7) The Importance of Good HR:
The HR element many not be a concern or consideration for every company in the SEO space, but for those interested in growing … it is CRITICAL! We're very fortunate. We were lucky enough to hire the right person and the right time, and she's enabled us as a company to reach new heights because of her knowledge about HR. I know she plans on a blog post specifically speaking to HR as it relates to the search and social space (right Jenn?), so I'll just mention a couple of these really quickly:
a) a company is only as strong as its people. Its therefore really important to find and hire the right people, and to release those not living up to expectations.
b) let people work to their strengths
c) give them time to find their niches
d) responsibility/accountability is required … no room for slackers
We've since hired another person with exceptional HR skills too, and that's again elevated us to another new level. HR is key to growing!

Importance of Hiring
Image Courtesy: CartoonStock.com

8 ) Engage a BookKeeper/Accountant:
For the first few years, I stored receipts in a manilla envelope, and tracked revenues in an Excel spreadsheet … shhhh this was my very own proprietary accounting software. I'd then deliver everything to our accountant once a year. As you can imagine, he wasn't very pleased to see me, and I wasn't really happy because I couldn't get access to the types of numbers and reports that I needed to run the business effectively. Fly by the Seat of Your Pants Accountingso to speak. I think I can also vouch that the government wasn't very happy, because I kept getting notices from them (pay GST, corporate taxes, etc.).

After a couple of years of this, I got smart and looked into the cost of a bookkeeper. To be honest, it was less than I expected. So we hired one. I now have a good idea at any point in time where we are performing well, when financing will be needed, and most importantly, which company's receivable are getting out of control (see point #9). Hiring a bookkeeper was crucial in permitting SEP to grow to the next level.

9) Don't Let Account Receivables Get Out of Hand:
It wasn't long after hiring the bookkeeper that he came to me one day and said "Jeff … we have a bit of a problem here. If you plan to keep growing at this rate, you need to stop extending credit to clients for 3, 4, 5, even 6 months." He was right. While the company was profitable, cash flow was becoming an issue. Fortunately, some of our key people internally developed processes and procedures for rectifying the outstanding issues, and preventing them from happening in the future. All as a result of hiring a bookkeeper, we're now in a much better position to continue growing.

Obviously, I've learned much more than this too, but had to keep this posting to a reasonable length. Accordingly, I'd like to hear from others in the space what some of your biggest learnings are. So, speak up.

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18 Responses to “9 Biggest Learnings Re: Running an SEO Business”

  1. Nick James says:

    Invaluable information here Jeff. These points should be read and taken on board by everyone that's serious about running a successful SEO business. Thanks for sharing your insight and experience.

    Nick

  2. Paul says:

    I have printed this out Jeff and will use it as my bible. Fantastic post.

  3. Tad Miller says:

    Jeff,

    It's all common sense stuff, but we had to learn a lot of this stuff the hard way also.

    The accounting aspect of things is SO important.

    Great Post.

  4. Marty says:

    Jeff,
    Thanks for the excellent information. I've been looking through you blog and it's wonderful. I'll have to stop by more often. aimClear

  5. Chris H. says:

    Thanks for the good advice, Jeff. I'm definitely going to pass this on to the guys I work with.

    Chris

  6. angle45media says:

    cool post…keep striving!

  7. Jeff – Same here. Printed it and passed it around. Great stuff, Thanks!

  8. Always nice to see stuff like this Jeff. I have been thinking it was time to get a bookkeeper and you just pushed me over the edge.

    Andrew

  9. Glenn Abel says:

    Great topic! I would add: Pick clients with care.

    It's important to recognize when a client is not in your best interests. Bad clients will make you crazy and eat up your valuable time.

  10. Jeff Quipp says:

    @ Nick – thank you Nick. Hopefully others benefit from it.

    @ Paul – thanks Paul! Good luck with the business going forward. Of course you know you can drop me a line/email anytime to chat.

    @ Tad – common sense yes … so I'm mystified why I didn't deploy what I knew.

    @ Marty – please do stop by more often. Everyone is on a strict blogging schedule now, and we're adding at least 2 more writers in January.

    @ Charlie – thanks! Hopefully it can help others.

    @ Andrew – do get a bookkeeper immediately! I flew blind for so long, and now that I can see, I wonder how I managed for so long.

    @ Glenn – agreed completely Glenn. Its like a marriage, so choose very carefully. Thanks for adding that Glenn!

  11. Chris Estes says:

    Cool article with info that applies to more than just SEO but to a lot of business. At the core most all business are the same even though their products differ.

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  13. I disagree about the I vs we thing. See this, for example:http://selfmadechick.com/2008/01/06/the-one-word-that-help-my-blog-grow-to-800-subscribers-in-17-weeks/

    I think it's important to be transparent and act your size. It's harder to differentiate yourself on an image that is false and keep it up than it is to be honest. On a related note, I recently had a prospect get in touch saying that he liked that part of my site/promotion/branding. On a related note, see what Oliver Taco had to say here:
    http://www.seomoz.org/ugc/drive-business-with-a-disaster

  14. Utah SEO says:

    "greater than 50% of businesses out there cannot effectively answer the question; “why should I purchase from you versus one of your competitors?”"

    I couldn't agree more. So many companies fail to stat their own unique value proposition in their copy.

  15. Daniel Chege says:

    The Pareto principle is very significant when it comes to Search Engine Optimization. Many people give up because they do not know how to calculate their return on investment or lack professional assistance.

    As an experienced SEO myself I know how time consuming it can be but the search engine results are worth it.

    Best Regards,

    Daniel Chege.

  16. Gregor says:

    This is really great. SEO blogs are full of ideas about what to do to get rankings but this is an excellent post about how to keep your clients happy.

    I completely agree about underpromising and overdelivering. Plus looking for long term clients.

    You've articulated everything nicely – my thanks!

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