Are you a self-employed SEO?
Do you want to be?
There's a lot to consider in making that jump to self-employment. It isn't for the faint of heart. It starts with giving up the myth of stability, and it ends...well, I suppose the end is what you make of it.
I left a stable job at a Long Island web development firm in September of '08 - yeah, right about the time the economy was swan diving into the sewer and most people were trying to lie low (or feverishly stockpiling weapons and canned goods).
More than a few people told me I was crazy for leaving - and maybe they were right. That might explain why, shortly thereafter, I turned down a job that would have amounted to an 80% increase in salary, working for big clients and with some smart people.
But I'd despaired of the agency world, or at least the version of it I had come to know. Office politics, poorly served clients, projects sold on absurd promises - it all left me feeling that the general hatred for marketers may, after all, be justified (damn us all to hell).
Maybe it wasn't the gutsiest leap ever: I had some money in the bank, a few small clients and a confidence that I could pick up work when/where I needed in spite of the economy.
And at least, I thought, I wouldn't find myself spinning wheels to justify a project that someone else shouldn't have sold.
I launched a website, started blogging and set out to local networking events. The shingle was hung.
Fifteen months later my head is spinning.
I've burned through my savings, found myself more than once charging groceries to credit cards, borrowed gas money and taken on part-time work that included wielding a jack hammer for ten hours straight under the hot August sun (work that, it turns out, makes a cold beer taste like the nectar of the gods).
But I'm still here, picking up new clients regularly - and my income and workload are climbing. I'm also happy to say that I haven't taken a dime in the way of business loans or other financing.
I'm not the only one that'll go this way - making the jump to entrepreneurship without being "sure" it will work and without much of a financial cushion. With the economy going the way it is, I expect there are many of us making that jump (and probably a few of us being helped off the cliff by a former employer).
I've learned some things over the last fifteen months that, had I known them when I started, would have given me a better head start and left me in a better position than I'm in now. Not that I regret a thing; I'm simply hoping I can help someone else who hasn't yet made the leap make better decisions than I have.
Minimize your hat collection
Small business owners are fond of saying, "we wear a lot of hats around here" - meaning any one of the employees is running around like a headless chicken handling a dozen job roles and skipping lunch.
When you run your own show this occurs to an extreme. You're the one promoting, selling, consulting, project managing, coding, designing, billing, handling customer service, etc.
Chances are you'll only do one or two of these well.
There's a better option here: partnering.
Partnering is an excellent option that has served me well. It's normally the case that great salespeople are less interested in fulfillment - and if that's your side of things a symbiotic relationship can work well. Of course, you want to be cautious about who you partner with, but so long as you're not splitting ownership of your company I wouldn't let the fear of being burned stop you. It might happen, but people are more honest than the human race, as a whole, gets credit for.
Likewise, bartering is a form of partnering. I've traded SEO consulting, HTML/CSS coding and writing for graphics design and programming in the past. This is a great way to both build relationships with resourceful people and get the help you need at a low cost.
The bottom line here is that if we spread ourselves over too much area we grow less effective - the whole laser vs. lightbulb thing. Don't shy away from getting others onboard to help bring in work, compile documents, built out web pages, etc - whatever parts of your work you're least effective at.
Develop and utilize as much automation as possible
I don't need to tell anyone that time is money - I think we learn this in kindergarten (or maybe later when we're done sitting around eating paste).
The longer you spend compiling invoices and handling payment collection, for example, the less time you have to focus on the core of what drives your business.
Luckily there are a few excellent tools out there that make many of the menial tasks easy and quick.
A few that I have picked up have made a huge impact in freeing up my time:
- FreshBooks for invoicing among other things (perhaps my favorite SaaS in the whole world)
- Outright for taxes / expense tracking (integrates with FreshBooks)
- Shoeboxed (they automatically scan/organize your receipts)
- Google Apps (my central hub for communications/calendar/task management)
- RescueTime (tracks your time and tells you where you're wasting it - now with new features that actually STOP you from wasting it)
To even scratch the surface of automated SEO tools available in this post would be a disservice - others have covered this quite well before.
Live and work in the cloud (and keep the overhead midget-sized)
All of the above services are web-based - meaning I can get at them from any location.
Part of what has kept me versatile over the last fifteen months is the ability to work from anywhere. That means when I'm visiting a client fifty miles away from my home office and something comes up, I can sit down somewhere with Wi-Fi and everything I need is a few clicks away.
I still fondly remember the day I found a quiet spot in the back yard and humanely squashed MS Outlook, burying it in a shallow grave. Never again have I found myself racing home at 90mph down the Long Island Expressway to get to an email or document that lives only on my hard drive - something I need for a sales meeting that I'm now going to be at least twenty minutes late for.
Since then I've strived to be as mobile as possible, and I can happily say that my residence could become ground zero for an asteroid impact tomorrow and my business wouldn't suffer much. Unless I happened to be home, in which case I'd die a horrible and firey death, but you get the point.
These web-based services have helped transform my business into a truly cloud-based operation:
- DropBox (awesome for automated backup of frequently-used files)
- Amazon S3 (some setup required, but the storage costs her are absurdly cheap)
- Google Apps (as above, absolutely central to my day-to-day operations in communication, project management, scheduling, etc)
- EverNote (perhaps the best freeform means of collecting notes, snippets and references - my 2nd brain)
- WordPress (the ability to update a website/blog from any location or computer is pretty convenient)
- Skype (minutes cost about 1/6 of what your cell minutes cost, can be used anywhere you have Wi-Fi and includes free video Skype-to-Skype chat)
We're working in an amazing time - the low costs of bandwidth and drive space have allowed for incredible storage and organization services. They replace traditional IT equipment and services at a fraction of the cost.
I'm lucky enough to have had a spare room at my residence. I turned it into an office. I admit, this arrangement requires structure: it's easy to find yourself, passed noon, still sitting in your pajamas without having brushed your teeth or showered yet. Self-imposed structure is a requirement.
On the other hand, avoiding the overhead of an office with its own set of utilities and furnishings gives you a lot of financial flexibility. And a few months in you realize how important that is.
Trust in the expandable workforce
Finally, I want to point to something that is yet to become clear to business overall.
We're looking at an entirely different economy today than we had even five years ago. Suddenly the overhead that was justified and paid for by marked-up service costs is no longer acceptable. Companies are pulling their ad dollars faster than ever before.
On the flip side, there is a bigger pool of untapped talent out there than ever. And many of these workers, with impeccable skills and drive, are starting up their own shows. And why not? If you've got the skills you need little more than a laptop, web connection and a place to hang your jacket.
These are people working out of their homes, or from a laptop in a coffee shop. And the amazing part: they'll get it done better and faster than many agencies will. Because they're scrappy and agile, and they've got the fire that grows from accepting full responsibility for the work you do.
The expandable workforce is how I've been able to handle projects well beyond my own personal means over the last fifteen months. Projects that required a dedicated graphic designer, an SEO, a Flash developer and a programmer all working in concert. And we pulled it off masterfully - not to mention faster and cheaper than any agency I know of would have.
Today I have five people I can bring onboard for a project with about a week's notice (a couple of them instantly). Nobody is sitting around twiddling thumbs and watching YouTube videos on the company dime. There is no wheel spinning, only traction.
We're only as good as our network. None of us can master everything - and even if we could there'd be no time to do it all.
There's a brimming pool of talent out there filled with people with flexibility and hunger who can make amazing things happen.
Tap into it.
Mike Tekula is an SEO Consultant and Web Developer who works and resides in Long Island, NY and who would prefer to never again be found clinging for dear life to a jackhammer.
11 thoughts on “The Bootstrapper’s Guide to SEO Consulting”
Great post. I’ve been in the same situation for a couple of years also on the PPC and Optimization side, working freelance for a bunch of companies, and use almost all the apps you mentioned above.
The most difficult thing for me has been finding those partners, getting designers who are reliable for instance has been a major headache. Any tips on this side?
@Mike Look around at 99designs.com – a lot of the active designers there are quite reliable and fast (they’re used to churning out high-quality work consistently). And you get to check out their stuff first.
.-= MikeTek recently posted: How to Demonstrate the Value of SEO to Clients & Managers =-.
Love this post. Our situation was similar to yours in timing (started Oct 2008) and the fact that we jumped in head first, without any guarantees of success.
Fortunately we had some great clients that helped us to showcase our work, and the referral business kept us growing.
I’m also extremely pleased that we’ve been able to grow our business without spending $1 on outbound marketing. We’re a true example of how SEO can be the foundation for a successful business.
I think all of your tips on automation and partnering are right on. The automation side of things has been the most crucial step in our plans to scale our growth, and the partnering has been the best way to handle requests that are outside of our core knowledge set. Expandable workforce is the way to go – stay lean and use JIT principles for production needs.
Cheers to anyone who has the cajones to start a new SEO business and stick it out to the end. Wishing you the best in your efforts!
.-= HighPoint SEO recently posted: HighPoint SEO is Under Construction =-.
Great article. Just went through a similar experience post layoff. Shrugged off some offers and went it on my own. The part about charging groceries, etc. was dead on. There is light at the end of the tunnel…just have to take the plunge. Whether chosen or forced. Thanks for the great resources, also.
My friend is a bootstrapping SEO starter. He has quite a ways to go. I’ll share this guide with him, because it is very hard to get started, but that’s the name of the bootstrapping game thanks.
Having recently been pushed off that cliff, your post really comes in handy and provides some great insight. The operations aspects of going it alone can be more daunting then the actual work. I figure to be successful I need to be very efficient with my processes and time especially since I would be wearing so many more hats. You certainly confirmed that and provided some resources I was not familiar with to help handle them..thanks!
Some good ideas Mike. I started typing theses and insurance forms about 20 years ago and I have a small document management service now and database programming consultancy. I’ve kept busy all these years even though I always worried that I would have to go out and get a job one day. Hang in there – when you are good at what you do, you generally succeed.
Your Juju says I have bad feed errors but I get your blog email regularly?
Awesome post. I am in a similar boat. I’m a web designer who was “pushed” over the cliff… Unlike you I haven’t seen many opportunities for employment (here in South Florida employers want to hire a designer that can do SEO and programming, and pay as a junior designer). I am determined to make it work, and am pretty confident that I will. Like you mention in your post, I have partnered with 2 other guys that used to work with me and are on the same boat: an SEO guy, and a web developer / webmaster. I’m working harder than ever (in my pajamas), and luckily have been able to pick up some clients…
Thank you for all the tools you recommend, I will definitely check them out.
Thanks for writing. I’m 3-months into being a freelance SEO after a decade of working in-house for large sites. It’s a bit scary, but very freeing. Enjoying it thus far.
.-= Dustin recently posted: New Seattle SEO Consultant On The Block =-.
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