I wish someone told me how hard growing a SEO agency really was.
If you’ve ever worked as a full-time SEO consultant in an agency environment, you’ll no doubt have witnessed the mass of opportunity that lies in a mid-level SEO retainer your employer has managed to acquire, only to deduce that you can probably do most of the work yourself and pocket the large fees that come with it, as opposed to running it through multiple layers of personnel and procedure in a slow and bloated agency, hindering progress and wasting resources.
The temptation to break out and start your own agency is real. You could easily reason: “I can help these clients get better results, in a quicker turnaround, while landing a serious increase in salary. Everyone’s a winner!”
And yet, working as a SEO is worlds apart from owning your own SEO agency.
As we’ve learned the hard way, growing an agency from zero to any sustainable level of revenue is about as hard as splitting a watermelon open with your bare hands (at least for us). The famous Field of Dreams quote, “if you build it, they will come”, as it turns out, is complete and utter nonsense.
Very soon after opening the doors to my little agency, I saw no one was coming knocking.
And so, I tried generating leads, in any way I could.
1. Job board jacking
My first idea was a genius one, in my opinion — there are many SEO jobs being posted on a variety of career boards on a daily basis, which means there are a lot of companies out there in need of a competent SEO consultant. With that in mind, why not reach out to them and offer our services instead? I can save them the hassle of finding a decent SEO analyst, as well as the costs involved with hiring a full-time employee.
So, practically speaking:
- Find a SEO analyst role that was paying $40K+.
- Get in touch with the person in charge of posting the ad.
- Offer to be the analyst on a remote capacity for half the cost ($2K/month)
- Imagine the surprise and delight in their eyes when they read my proposal
- Sit back and watch the profits roll in.
Using an app called Hunter, I sent ~300 cold emails and waited for the magic to happen. And waited. And waited.
People were opening my email, but there seemed to be no responses coming back my way. I didn’t understand why, but for some reason, no one was interested in my well-thought-out concept. Maybe I was ahead of my time? maybe they were a recruiting agency, or maybe they were looking for an in-house position for someone they could meet and hire locally. We’ll never know.
“Not a big deal”, I reasoned. I had many more ideas I wanted to try, anyway.
2. LinkedIn outreach
Since recruiters and HR people aren’t interested in hiring agencies, I had to get to the source: the decision maker.
Most CEOs are already on LinkedIn, so why not message them directly and see if they are interested in hiring us?
Of course, there was the whole task of connecting to them first. And with hundreds of thousands of CEOs, there was no way a human could manually sift through and connect with each and every individual.
Enter Dux Soup, a LinkedIn automation app which seemed to hold the keys to the kingdom of SEO riches.
After a few thousand connection requests and a decent number of people marking that they don’t actually know me, LinkedIn put a restriction on the account, only allowing me to connect with individuals if I knew their personal email address.
With that roadblock in place, I decided to mass message those who had accepted the invitation.
Overall, I was able to generate one lead(!), who later decided to drop off the face of the earth when it came to discussing the terms of the contract. Everyone else had a myriad of excuses. Some thought my prices were too expensive, some had a “our website is just a brochure, anyway” mentality, while others were either working with an agency, had already worked with one, or were just not interested.
Alas, it was time to try the next thing.
3. Yelp hunting
I guess it’s understandable that CEOs and decision makers don’t want to be cold pitched SEO on LinkedIn. There’s a good chance they don’t care about SEO, don’t see the value in it, or are simply the wrong people to talk to about it.
So, who are the right people?
That was hard for me to determine, and so another idea popped into my scheming little brain — can I find people who have already used a previous agency and left a public review somewhere, and reach out to them directly?
Of course. There’s something called Yelp!
I combed through every local SEO agency on Yelp and scraped every review. I messaged 100+ Yelpers who had used a SEO agency before and asked them if they needed further SEO services since their last experience, or any complementary service. Genius idea, right?
It turns out no one checks their Yelp messages, or at least that’s what I told myself. 0 replies.
4. Free SEO audits
I needed to find people who were actively looking for SEO help.
After reading that a free audit tool seems to help other SEO agencies in generating leads and converting some of those into actual clients, I figured it’s a slam dunk if I do the same.
So, I registered WhyAmINotRanking.com and used a white label version of My Site Auditor to give anyone a free SEO audit of their website.
Sure enough, the leads poured in. But not the kind I was hoping for.
I seemed to only get inquiries from international sites, other SEO agencies or one-person companies that had zero budget for SEO consulting. I couldn’t understand it — how were other firms doing so well with this strategy, but I wasn’t?
Nevertheless, I kept the site up for six months. After a ton of leads with 0% close rates and hundreds of dollars expended, however, I decided to shut it down.
5. Outsourced content writing
At this stage, I was reading hundreds of articles on how to grow an online company to see what I could have been missing, and what seemed to work at the time.
A lot of companies seemed to have success with content marketing. Whether they were publishing on their own blog, or guest posting on other notable publications, it seemed to be a sure and steady way to grow a business and an audience at the same time.
The problem was that I hated writing. The solution? Other people love writing, so let’s hire them to do it for us!
I went on a rampage, utilizing every service I could find. In fact, all in all I used around 7 writing services, including the likes of:
Unfortunately (and surprisingly), they all sucked. It didn’t matter if you’d ordered the 5 star service with clear instructions, or completed their questionnaire with extreme detail. It was essentially the same result with each of them — shocking to witness, and not something I would ever recommend to anyone looking to create content.
Either my expectations were way too high, or I can’t think of an easier way to lose time and money than to outsource your content writing efforts to a service like the aforementioned. It would be tantamount to throwing money down the toilet, then flushing 7 times. A very expensive and sobering experience, at the very least!
It was around the same time I was in the middle of reading a book called Giftology, which was all about how to use gifts in order to have people return your calls and get your foot in the door with clients and new relationships.
With this new found knowledge, the decision was made to send gifts to around 10 businesses I was eager to win over.
After a quick online search I discovered ExecutiveGiftShoppe and, as the book suggested, had something custom made for the 10 prospects and their families. This unique gift, apparently, would be received with a much greater response than say, a bottle of wine — this gift will live in the home for a long time to come and they will be reminded of you every time they use it. Of course, the gift came with our company details and what I could do for them with regard to SEO and digital marketing.
I never heard back from any of them.
The question arose if I should try again with 10 more companies. I had reasoned if there was even 1 response, I would have considered running another round of gifting experiments, but it was extremely expensive campaign already, and I couldn’t justify it when it had an initial failure rate of 100%.
7. Voicemail blast
Turning to my community, I found an interesting thread on an entrepreneurs forum I frequent about a local business who was doing extremely well leaving voicemails for people to call him back on, if they were interested in doing so.
These were not ordinary voicemails, though. They were in fact ‘ringless’ voicemails. Ringless, as the name suggests, doesn’t actually call the number, rather goes directly to the voicemail and leaves a pre-recorded message.
This strategy seemed like a hole-in-one — I don’t need to face the rejection of cold calling, but still get the benefits of it? Sign me up!
Using Slybroadcast, I was able to seamlessly send around ~400 voicemails to local businesses, letting them know I had visited their website and they could use some SEO help, and of course that I was available for hire.
After 2 days, I had received 7 phone calls back. Five of them had not listened the message, and had assumed I was a customer looking to make a purchase, and the other two wanted to get off the ‘list’ I had put them on.
Evidently, this technique works better in some industries than others.
8. Defunct agency domains
If I couldn’t get clients because nobody knew about us, maybe they would consider previously known SEO agencies — at least that was my line of reasoning, which seemed perfectly logical at the time (hint: it wasn’t).
I sought out parked and expired domains which were once SEO agencies or consultants at the very least.
Using a range of tools and techniques, I was able to narrow the focus down to a handful of domains (including this one!) and finally pulled the trigger on 2 domains, totaling a cost of approximately $3,000. Even if they generated one client for us, I figured, it would pay for itself in spades.
Well, as you may have expected from the outset, I never saw a single lead from these defunct agency domains.
A costly misstep, if there ever was one.
9. Write a SEO Book
Perhaps I wasn’t received as a legitimate SEO agency because I hadn’t given any keynotes or featured on any communities like the YouMoz blog or guest posting on SearchEngineLand.
So, what was the best way to build some authority in the space? Write a book!
Anyone who has written a book on a topic is automatically perceived as an expert at it. And I was, considering how many years of experience I had under my belt. So, why not?
I got to work. And after a solid three months of drafting and editing on a book-writing app called Vellum, “The Little White Book of SEO” was released to the public. Now, all I had to do was enjoy the free leads coming my way, and occasionally collect on my Amazon checks.
Did it generate any buzz? Nope.
Did it bring in leads? Not to this day.
Did it position me as an authority? I don’t think so.
Well, at least I could say I’ve written a book. Nobody ever asks how many you actually sold or the business it brought in, right?
10. Free SEO course
Perhaps the book didn’t take off because it had a price attached to it. Nobody wants to pay for SEO advice when there’s so much out there for free, I assumed.
In an instant, the idea hit me like a ton of bricks: convert the book into an online course, for free! That’ll bring in the masses for sure.
With that notion, I set out to create a visually captivating SEO course that would be as fun as it was free.
It took a couple of months to hire and fire a bunch of cartoon artists, discover stock vectors, create a rough outline, re-discover and draft another outline with more stock vectors and then hire and fire a couple of voiceover actors before the final masterpiece was complete.
The free SEO course was live.
In the beginning, it drew in a ton of interest. I was getting about 25 signups a day. Some people loved it. Most people complained it was too simple. Some said it was too short. Others wanted more than an explanation of what SEO was, and wanted me to tell them how to actually do it. In other words, they wanted free consulting — not a free course.
Whether the course could’ve been considered a success in that it helped some beginners learn the fundamentals of SEO, it sure as much didn’t generate any more leads for us. And in that instance, it was a complete and utter failure. Shocker!
11. Lead generation services
The writing was on the wall. I was not good at generating leads. It’s best to leave that to people who actually generate leads for a living, so my logic lead me to reach out to them and see if I could work something out.
I ended up going with WebLeadsInc, a lead generation service out of Los Angeles. I bought leads for around $25 each and got down to cold emailing each one. These inbound leads, as I was told, were already interested in SEO and had completed an online form expressing as such.
After just a few emails and phone calls however, it became evident that these leads had not been qualified. Most of them had no budget to work with, and some didn’t even have a website!
But, I wasn’t giving up that easy.
I moved on to Inbundo, another California-based lead generation company. I applied to work with them on two separate occasions. Both times, I never heard a word back.
I guess I had no choice but to go another route.
12. Service matchmaking
One way that was sure to bring in leads for me was service providers who had created an entire business model around it.
There are companies and individuals who are actively looking for professionals in all fields, ready and willing to hire. They’ve expressed interested on these matchmaking-type service websites, so all I had to do was sign up and reply to the leads who were particularly interested in SEO.
Thumbtack was the first such site I created an account on. While there wasn’t a SEO-specific service people could request, there was an online marketing option, where users would regularly mention SEO in their title or description — these were the leads I would enthusiastically respond to.
Thumbtack’s business model was one where I paid for each lead I actually engaged with. It wasn’t a high number, but it would add up over time. Soon, I was paying hundreds of dollars per month, hoping to convert just one lead into a paying customer. My expectations were mixed, but ultimately I was not surprised to see most leads were weak in nature, would often be tire-kickers and grow cold even after showing initial interest.
Another service I decided to try was Credo. They seemed to be geared specifically to SEO and promised to only provide me with leads that were indeed qualified and serious about hiring a firm in the near future. With that as the precedent, I was more than willing to pay the annual $699 with the hope of converting 2 or 3 clients as the worst-case scenario.
On our initial application, I never heard back from Credo. A few months later, I decided to apply one more time. On this occasion, I was told our application was on hold with no clear reason why.
To this day, I am yet to get an update on it.
Back to the drawing board.
13. Paid coaching
At this point, it was clear something was wrong. Nothing was going right. Not one.
The doubts became real, and the questions began to arise: Why was this happening to me? Should I go back to just being a SEO employee? What do I tell everyone around me, after such a long period of failure?
I didn’t know what to do. All I knew was that I was closer to success than when I had first started, and if I was going to end up quitting, I should have never began this journey in the first place. In other words, I had nothing to fall back on. There was no plan B. This was it, and I had to make it work.
The agency model worked. Thousands of people had gone before me and were successful. Was it something that clicked for them that I just couldn’t seem to grasp?
I needed to know.
I looked for mentorship in any format or context. I cold emailed ~25 CEOs and founders, asking for any advice they could give me on how to grow an agency. Of course, none replied. But in a moment of serendipity, I happened to stumble upon a website called Clarity.fm.
Clarity.fm was a service which made it possible to talk to some prominent figures for a reasonable fee. I figured it was worth it. I created an account and within a few days had spoken to three “coaches”. One instructed me to invest in a $1,800 course about consulting. Another wanted me to buy his book in which the answers lie. The third coach told me to just keep doing what I’m doing. Go figure.
As divergent and varied as the feedback was, I felt the need to get a second opinion (or in this case, a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth).
I signed up for another service called GrowthMentor, which seemed to be similar to Clarity.fm but with a greater emphasis on growth and marketing. I ended up speaking to five more coaches, each with differing opinions as to why I hadn’t succeeded and what I needed to do next:
One coach suggested I aim to rank for “SEO agency” in order to prove I’m “eating my own dog food” and can actually deliver results. Another told me to attend SEO conferences and build my network. I can’t remember what the others advised, apart from the last coach who strongly recommended something called BNI…
BNI, short for Business Network International, is a networking group of local business owners who meet up on a regular basis to network, socialize and ultimately refer business to each other. I was surprised I had never heard of them before, since they apparently have over 250,000 members in more than 9,000 chapters worldwide.
I found the idea rather interesting and perhaps the solution I was looking for, especially since there can only be one business of each industry represented in each chapter, in order to avoid any competition and conflict of interest e.g. two SEO agencies can’t be members of the local Bakersfield BNI network.
After scanning Los Angeles for a BNI presence, I found a local chapter about 10 miles away and attended one of their meetings. There was about 20 business owners that day, which lead me to believe that I could easily convert one or two of them into a client and make the entire endeavor worthwhile. The cost to join was around $1500 a year, with most chapters varying in price depending on their venue and amenities offered.
I signed up immediately, attending the weekly meetings and talking about SEO to anyone who seemed vaguely interested in it. A number of members approached me for some pointers and SEO tips, but nothing seemed to tip them over the line to becoming actual clients.
A couple of members balked at my prices. It made me wonder, “Was I charging too much? Would I need to go the ‘budget’ route?”. I was still much more affordable than a full time SEO analyst — a truly experienced one at that. I wasn’t sure what I was doing wrong.
Perhaps the niche I needed to engage with wasn’t present in that chapter.
After a year, I decided not to renew the membership. It was great to educate business owners on the importance of SEO, but at $1500 there needed to be a tangible ROI.
Around the same time of my BNI failure I was reading a book called Anti-Sell by Steve Morgan of SEOno, a well-known blog in the SEO space.
His story was similar to my own, in which he wasn’t a great salesperson but managed to get clients by doing many of the same things I had done, although he seems to have had a lot more success. In the book, he mentioned a specific tactic involving hosting his own meetups using Meetup.com — it made him to be perceived as a leader in the industry, along with it bringing in a lot more clients than BNI did.
With that in mind, I hopped on over to Meetup.com and created a local webmaster group, including programmers and web developers alike. This, as Steve had highlighted, was a great group of individuals to host a meetup for, since they naturally work with business owners who need SEO after a website has been designed and created. They tend not to associate with SEOs, so they would refer me, since I was the only SEO guy they know. Genius idea, right?
Meetup.com had a fantastic reach, with over 35 million members. After creating the group and paying the initial $16.79, I started to see people join the group on their own. Within the space of a week, we had 39 members!
Now that it was a large enough group, I pulled the trigger and organized the first meetup at the local Panera Bread.
4 people RSVP’d, which was still good considering it was the first one.
1 person showed up.
We talked for a little bit, and parted ways after ~35 minutes. I grabbed a muffin and went home.
Since then, I’ve hosted many more meetups, each with varying success and turnout rates. I tested different locations, different days, different times of day as well as the copy I used to invite and send reminders with.
There didn’t seem to be a winning formula, nor a perfect way to conduct the meetings. All in all, it’s still an ongoing process, but still with 0 client referrals.
Onward we go.
16. Rank-then-pay model
The overarching conclusion I came to with all my failure as an agency owner was that people didn’t trust me. I had the experience and the results, but there is a level of trust that needs to be earned before business owners were willing to part with their money.
There was still some risk involved in hiring me.
Well, why couldn’t I just eliminate that risk?
I decided to try an approach where clients only pay me after I get them results. This is commonly known in the industry as a pay-for-performance model. I discovered there indeed was an agency who’s entire business model was built on this — RankPay. If they could do it and be successful, why couldn’t I?
I told my friend about the idea and he immediately replied with “I’ll hire you right now for that”.
Success! I had my first client.
Over the next five months, I did everything I could to rank his site for the 150+ keywords we had identified. Of course, I had to run it on the cheap, since I didn’t have any revenue to work with just yet.
I used the free SEMrush trial, free audit tools and free SERP trackers. I wrote every title and meta description myself, implemented every recommendation that I possibly could and utilized every free link building method possible.
The needle never moved. Rankings didn’t improve. From the search engines perspective, it was as if there had been no changes made to the site for relevance, crawlability and user experience, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
At this point, I had a decision to make: should I cut my losses (time) and admit defeat, or make an investment that is almost certain to pay off eventually?
I think you can guess the route I took.
Pulling out my credit card, I hired a professional web designer to make the website faster, better looking and mobile responsive. I paid for specialized directory listings, invested in a SSL certificate and user testing to better understand behavior and ways to increase dwell time.
I sat back and waited for the uptick to arrive. Shockingly, it never came.
Rankings remained flatlined. I waited another two months to see if the search engines just needed a little more time to recrawl and correct the SERPs accordingly.
After seven months of hard work and uncertainty, I was stressed, anxious and $4,000 deep in credit card debt. I had failed, yet again. I couldn’t justify more spend when my theories and hypothesis’ had continually collapsed on each other.
Perhaps the most demoralizing defeat yet, it was time to call it quits.
So I did.
Final (Important) Thoughts
There have been many more failures since, but I highlighted these specific efforts to show there is no one way to succeed or fail at growing an agency.
A lot of the aforementioned methods are proven to work for many businesses and are not featured in order to dissuade anyone from trying them. Just because they didn’t work for me, it doesn’t mean it won’t work for you. In fact, they could work for us if we tried them again with a different approach or understanding.
There is no simple or easy path to a successfully operating agency. Like every other business, it takes hard work, planning and persistence at the very least. Over time, things do get easier and streamlined, which will strengthen you as an entrepreneur and as an individual.
Never stop experimenting. You just never know what you’ll stumble upon next.
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