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Dan Smith

Why I Worked 80 Hour Weeks (and Sacrificed My Social Life) So I Could Get Involved In The SEO Industry

Dan Smith

Most people who know me understand I’m pretty laid back. I like to just see what happens throughout life in most respects. I left school, went to Sixth Form, realized it wasn’t for me so left after six weeks, got on board with a business apprenticeship and from then on practically fell into jobs. In fact, with the exception of a placement within the first few months of my apprenticeship, I’ve never really had an interview.

And I’ve always been happy with this approach. I’m a huge believer that your gut instinct is alive and well, telling you what to do and to all intents and purposes, your path is laid out for you. I’m not saying you can’t deviate from it – our actions today influence our future in some way, shape or form – but most of us will do just fine in life if we go along the path that feels right.

With all this in mind, it’s therefore a little out of the norm for me to have had such a strong passion to be involved in the SEO industry. Right from just after I left school in 2003, the whole digital landscape was beginning to truly hit its growth period and for some reason, SEO stood out to me.

I’d love to be able to say now that the past 10 years or so have been a fantastic, always-positive journey; one from being a complete non-digital marketing related individual to my role as SEO Specialist at a multi-award winning agency that works with brands such as British Airways, Sage and ASDA (Walmart).

But, as you may have already guessed by the title of the post, this was anything but the case. I wanted to be involved in the industry – practically saw my future within it – and although it didn’t seem it at the time, I now realize I almost took a completely blinkered approach whilst establishing myself within it.

Work, Work, Work

It wasn’t so much that I was ignoring everything around me because I didn’t think it was important, but more because I was finding myself with so little time to do anything but work.

For example, at the start of my journey to getting involved with SEO, I was already working a full time job in an unrelated industry. There were 37.5 hours per week spent actually working here, plus probably another 10 for commuting – and then I was working (or at least investing time in developing my knowledge and network) at one point an additional 40 hours on top with SEO.

I’d leave work and be home by 6 p.m., Monday to Friday. I was heading to bed at about 1 a.m. Now bear in mind I had just started going out with my now wife at the same time and I was trying my hardest to spend as much time as possible with her, as well as taking into account I had to eat and drink, I was working about 6 hours per day, every day of the week (including weekends), on top of my ‘normal’ job.

There were some positives to this that I still take away and discuss to this day – I’m a complete believer that if you want to get something done or need to achieve something, you’ll find the time to do it – but the more time passes, the more I realize it wasn’t a great period.

Especially as it lasted for not just weeks or months, but years.

I literally didn’t have a social life. The vast majority of my evenings were spent working, even to the extent that I’d have my laptop open whilst sat in the living room with my girlfriend and the in-laws. I also vividly remember leaving family dinners or functions as I had to go and do some work.

I do have to point out here that I was earning money to some extent with my work. Not straight away, but at one stage I was taking home about another 90% of my day-to-day salary with freelance work. The financial side was definitely a help at this point, and kept me focused, but looking back, I do have to question whether the financial incentive was worth it.

Now I’m fortunate enough that my wife is unbelievably spectacular and for the most part, just rode with it. We did have our ups and downs, but everything seemed OK, until I remember her getting upset one weekend, saying we never did anything as I was always working.

I knew I was working a lot and I knew she understood that it was what I wanted to do and in many ways, the investment would be worth it in the future. However, it was when she was clearly upset – and that it was basically because of me working so much – that it really hit home. I was putting my desire to be involved in SEO before everything I loved.

I actually remember at that point saying that moving forward, I’d make a concerted effort not to work weekends at all. And for the most part, I’ve managed to stick to that for what must now be five years.

Going Full-Time Digital

I also think it was around this stage that things started to change for me. I began moving towards a ‘daytime’ career that was actually more like that I had been freelancing in on an evening and weekend basis. I started making steps to becoming more effective and efficient as a worker, as well as being more strict with myself and realizing that turning down work didn’t mean I wouldn’t get offers in the future (this was actually a huge point for me – I’ve always had an inability to say ‘no,’ and convinced myself that as soon as I said no, it would remove all the hard work I’d carried out already).

Soon after, I took on some freelance work producing content for a dedicated blogging agency. A couple of months in and I was hired as their Head Of Online Communications on a part time basis, with this moving to a full time role a few months later.

After working with the agency for two years, I moved onto another for another two years, and then to Leighton where I am today.

I’m fully aware I’ve basically summed up the past five or six years of my life in the last paragraph or two, but that’s how it seems to have happened. I invested so much time into becoming involved in the industry, that when it actually started to happen, I almost missed it. I still find it fascinating that people come to me looking for advice and support on SEO, as I think I’m relatively new to the industry – reality is I’ve been in it to some degree for over a decade now!

If you’ve got to this point, massive congratulations first off. This post has turned into somewhat of a life story. I do hope it’s offered some type of inspiration if nothing else. Without sounding like some cliche life coach quote, if you want to achieve something, you’ve just got to work for it. For me, it doesn’t get any simpler than that.

What isn’t as simple, however, is actually why I wanted to be involved in SEO in the first place.

Helping = Happiness

I love my job. It’s so vast and varied that it’s almost completely indistinguishable to what it was when I first started, as SEO is now essentially digital marketing – to see success in the search engines, you need to be delivering the best user experience you possibly can, which means consideration needs to be given to everything from social media activity through to mobile responsive website designs.

Back when I started though, SEO was all about building backlinks and including keywords within your website copy. In many ways, it didn’t involve that much creativity or technical knowledge. It was more about the amount of time you invested in the process.

I actually started my involvement in digital by trying to teach myself HTML and CSS, but I quickly realized that was never going to be my forte, and the whole world of SEO seemed like the most well-suited option.

But again, why? I don’t think anyone looked at it back in the day thinking “spend 40 hours a week building backlinks from forums and blog comments? Count me in!”

And so looking back on it, I question whether it was actually the whole industry that was more appealing, rather than the specific work that was required.

SEO meant helping businesses to succeed online. Everyone needs a website and everyone wants to get more traffic, so in many ways, it seemed like a license to print money! You tell a client you can increase traffic, they pay you, you deliver and they continue to pay as long as you continue to deliver.

I do think this was only one component, however, and another was the potential it offered. Even when SEO was still a relatively new term, it was clear that if you could help a client increase their organic traffic, as the world of digital was only going to become more important, you could potentially help them in other areas.

What’s more, I’ve always had somewhat of an entrepreneurial flare and loved the idea of being my own boss, working when and where I wanted. So the thought of being involved in the SEO industry, working with clients right around the world and not necessarily being restricted to one location? Massively, massively appealing.

The Allure of SEO

When I was thinking about this post, I was unsure about which way it would go, and I think to a certain extent I was looking for answers to the title myself. I’ve always had some draw towards SEO, but could never really put my finger on why.

And the reality is, I don’t think there’s still one clear reason why. There’s not something that instantly makes me realize why I worked 80 hours a week, or something that made me give up my social life and not be the best boyfriend then husband possible. It’s a collection of things.

It’s about helping others. It’s about seeing my knowledge and experience put to good use. It’s about the flexibility, variety and potential the industry offers.

Today, I get to work with fantastic clients. I get the best of both worlds by living in the beautiful surroundings of the North East of England, but can travel to the wonderful city that is London. I have the freedom to spend time with family, but have work so integrated within my life that I can look at a project any time of the day.

And so, whilst the initial journey to becoming a SEO Specialist may have had its ups and downs – and I really do need to thank my Better Half for not running to the hills – I’m not only glad I did it all, but that it worked out how I hoped.

Or, as suspected, like my gut instinct said it would.

Everyone Is (Not) the Same

Discussing this topic with the guys here at SEMrush, they explained that they’d love to hear if my approach – my ‘work ethic’ is how it was mentioned – was part of who I am and whether it’s typical in my field.

For years I genuinely thought that the answer to the latter was yes, and as such, the answer to the former was also yes. But the more involved I become with the industry, the more I wonder whether this is the case.

I’m not saying people don’t want to work to get where they want to be. It’s more little comments (“I can’t do that, as I’m going home in 2 minutes when it’s 5 o’clock,” for example) that make me wonder about devotion and dedication.

I’m a huge believer in work / life integration and to see success in today’s digital world, and to live a life that allows me to get a fantastic balance and enjoy every aspect, I do feel there needs to be some give and take - you give more than you might expect at work, and you’ll be able to take more for your own personal benefit.

Perhaps it’s just me. Maybe I’m not the norm. But I’d really hate to think that was the case. I’m sure some of the people who go against this approach are the minority. In fact I know there are people out there who invest just as much time.

Just on the topic of work / life integration, when proofing this, I’ve become conscious that the post may come across as me putting my career before anything else; that family almost doesn’t come into consideration. That genuinely isn’t the case. The whole reason I invest so much time into my work is without doubt because I love it, but also because I want to have the best life for me and my family possible.

That means I need to enjoy my work. It’s about feeling comfortable with everything I do professionally and to a certain extent, blurring the lines between what was traditionally personal time and professional time.

I do still think there needs to be some type of differentiator between the two lives, but I also genuinely believe that the two can intertwine with one another easily, providing what’s essentially a daily life that blends family time and work together perfectly.

And for those interested, I’ve now got a great social life, a wife that still loves me, a little boy who I get to spend quality time with and a balance that although sees me probably ‘switched on’ for 80 hours a week, means I’m only at a computer for a much more manageable amount!

Dan Smith is the SEO Specialist at Leighton. Responsible for the development, implementation and ultimate success of client strategies, Dan brings a decade’s worth of digital and communication experience to the table and firmly believes quality, audience-relevant content delivered effectively across all channels is the key to success. His last article for SEMrush was "5 Simple Ways I Got 100+ Genuine Twitter Followers a Week Organically and Easily."

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