Building A Fully Remote SEO Agency
Agency That's Never Met Its Clients
- Fundamentals of Winning Clients Remotely: Trust, Reputation, and Quality
- Landing Your First Clients as a Remote Agency
- Aligning Agency Trust with Personal Brand Trust
- Tools for Managing Remote Teams
- A Hiring Process for a Remote Agency
- Pricing Structures for Remote Agencies
- Remote Work Routine
- The Power of Client Reviews
Ross: Hello everyone and welcome to another SEMrush webinar. We're joined by Deepak, one of the most respected London agency owners that I think we've ever met. Deepak, how you're doing?
Deepak: I am self-isolating. I'm well, alive in this strange environment that we're in and everything's good over my side. How are you mate?
Ross: It's going good. It's been interesting. The self-isolation thing's a bit weird and a bit weighty. We've been working from home for two weeks now, but in terms of like not being allowed to go out for more than half an hour, an hour just to get some exercise, that's a bit weird.
You're quite a prolific runner. You've done like ultra-marathons and stuff like that. How are you coping with the shut and then the lack of exercise, what you're doing to stay sane?
Deepak: It's a good question. Running, thankfully, is the one thing that is still sanctioned.I know for a lot of other people that used to get into the gym, used to maybe doing weights, or used to doing hit sessions, or a body pump or a studio-based work, I think it must be a big transition.
Ross: Today we're going to be talking about building a remote agency. You've got a quite large agency with lots of people around the globe, right?
Deepak: Yeah. So I guess I'm based in London, England. The team, I think there's only now two of us are based in London.
We've got an office based in Verdula, India, which is in Ahmedabad, so it's kind of a bit more central and South and then there's several people that work from home. There's a couple of people in the States and we've got a husband and wife team that work out of Jerusalem in Israel, which is pretty cool.
Ross: I used to share a flat with a husband and wife. I had to move out because they were either arguing or doing the opposite of arguing, you want to be stepping over people passionately or dispassionately arguing with themselves. That was a tricky one.
Deepak: It sounds very intimate. I can totally imagine and appreciate that from my days of house sharing as well that you hear the good, the bad, and the ugly. You hear everything.
Ross: We've got some people from all over the place. We've got Vincenti from Mexico, Ola Amigo. We have got a Teen Blogger from India. Hello Teen Blogger. Thank you guys for joining us. I think you’re in for a real treat because Deepak and I both run agencies based out of London. I have all of my staff as in-house with some remoters, whereas Deepak is fully remote, so I'm absolutely fascinated by this process.
Just before I can enter Deepak, I want to share a story of how you've actually helped me with my business. Deepak actually optimized my hiring process for remote work, so we could get down to instead of it being a five-stage process which it usually is, down to a two-stage process and instead of it taking, seeing 20 people and taking all my staff's time up, we could see hundreds of people and qualified people much better. So, thank you for that.
Can I get into the impetus of why you decided to go remote, why you choose the countries you chose and things like that?
Deepak: I started the agency having spent a lot of my 20s being a digital nomad. I say digital nomad, that wasn't my intention. It wasn't that I wanted to travel the world and freelance, it was more that I was living abroad and at that time, just by coincidence, I got used to ultimately remote working.
When I was living in Rio, or living in Lisbon, I'd have to make money effectively and it made no sense to try and build up something that was local, whilst I was moving every three to six months.
That was during my 20s so for timeline, for those that are wondering, we're talking from maybe around 2011 to 2015, I ultimately spent a lot of time outside of the UK. During that whole journey, I would build an income from being a remote digital freelancer or I worked also as being someone who'd help people write their job applications or their university applications and everything was done as you can imagine Ross, on Skype at that time.
We'd exchange emails but began to use Google drive more and more, but fundamentally they were the three tools that I worked from.
Then when I began to set up the agency, I knew that I don't really want to meet people, to be honest with you. As social as I enjoy being, I already knew that I didn't want to meet people. But at the same time, I also knew that I needed to establish the fact that people would feel like they've met me to trust me and any business I represented enough to be able to actually pop money and spend money on something like SEO.
I guess I wanted to work remotely because I wanted to continue living the lifestyle that I had and I also at the same time knew that I needed to convey how and where my expertise lies and also communicate enough trust to effectively convince, the guy in the bedroom, as well as the guy in the boardroom.
Fundamentals of Winning Clients Remotely: Trust, Reputation, and Quality
Ross: Wait, wait, “the guy in the bedroom”. How are you getting these deals, Deepak? Clarify what you mean by, "The guy in the bedroom."
Deepak: Yeah, sure. I basically wanted to establish enough trust that someone who's running a very successful company from over their bedroom, or as the marketing director who's sitting in a boardroom, or the bloke down the pub who's got quite a successful company is sitting in his bar.
I want all of them to pop money with me and the way that I thought about it was, how do you effectively communicate and establish trust enough, that someone can look at you online and think that, "You know what? Ross Tavendale looks super trustworthy. I checked him out," and for me, there were three things that needed to fall in alignment.
The three things that I thought would convince me to send anybody else money effectively were number one, do I trust the man? The man in this instance would be the sales director. Okay great, I've looked up Deepak, because Deepak is the person who is pitching me Pearl Lemon. So, I want to make sure that I can trust Deepak and his character in general.
The second part of it was the actual business. Who's Deepak representing? Oh, it's Pearl Lemon. Now let me just like Nikhill did, let me Google Pearl Lemon whilst at Deepak is on the phone to me or Deepak is on Zoom and there's maybe two people in a call or maybe there's one person in the call and I almost hear it 40% of the time. You'd hear a light tap of the keyboard, as I was talking, some will be quickly looking me up, having a quick check on LinkedIn, jumping onto YouTube and just not really reading but just flicking through to get a sense of, "Okay, who is this guy and who is this company?" That was the second thing.
Then the third thing was, is his actual product that he's selling legitimate and is it a good product? These three things for me have to be in alignment to ensure that you can get all three of those characters.
The guy in the bedroom is most concerned probably about the results and then everything else because he's very results-oriented. The guy in the actual boardroom is concerned with the company brand, as well as the company results because there needs to be a cultural alignment.
The guy who's in the bar is probably most interested in the person who's selling the product, because he's like, "You know what? This is a barroom type conversation. I don't know much about SEO, I don't know much about your company isn't really mad at Deepak, but can I trust you?"
By focusing on all three, you enable yourself to get every type of customer and they were the three ways that I began to categorize people, which is bedroom, boardroom, and bar. How can I convince all three?
Ross: Love that. That's absolutely fantastic, bedroom, boardroom, and bar. For me, it's usually the other way around. I meet them in a boardroom, I take them to the bar and I end up in my bedroom. But that's absolutely fantastic.
Essentially what you're doing there is you're looking at that entire sales funnel and all of the reasons why people say yes to you and you're actually breaking it down quite scientifically and just making sure you've got all those boxes checked.
Landing Your First Clients as a Remote Agency
One of the things that guys in the chat are asking, is they're saying getting clients when you work remotely is difficult. I definitely imagine it's not easy. You seem to have quite a very high level of lead gen going on the site, but when you first started, what was happening there? How were you getting these people and when you didn't have, the first guy and all that? Like how did you get the first guys in?
Deepak: What happens when I look you up online, or what happens when I look you up on LinkedIn, or what happens when I look up anything that you've referenced online? It's not that difficult to build up ultimately a little bit of credibility for yourself by effectively demonstrating the value that you can add.
Then when you combine that with the outreach that you do, it's then a case of understanding the channels that are important. I focused Ross on particular platforms that for me would net particular kinds of clients. The bedroom and the bar type scenarios, okay guys, the bedroom and the bar type scenarios, the bedroom is Upwork.
Upwork is a great platform where you'll get small businesses that can be very profitable as well as small businesses that are not so profitable that are very results-focused and want to work with someone who's very technically savvy.
Upwork is a good place from that, that was where I started. It's free to create a profile. You can build a template and then you can begin doing outreach and on Upwork, the best place to actually build your profile is upon Upwork and nowhere else. That was the first place.
The second place, now we're moving into the kind of bar type scenario if you will. It's angel.co, so angel.co is where the world needs startups as they say and then you get a lot of a mix between the bar and the bedroom type character. They're funded companies and they're typically people of our age who are pretty switched on. They'd raise some money and they're hiring quickly and they want someone who's just small and they think that this guy gets it.
Those two platforms are where literally in the early days of the first 30 to 90 days, I would submit applications... and I would work really hard to have a good Upwork profile.
If I'm being honest, Ross, I submitted a lot of applications to a lot of actual companies, but the other thing that I think sometimes people get wrong is I aggressively ask for feedback when I fail. I would approach everybody and three out of five would ignore me. But I'd say, "What was better about the other guy's application," And I'd also ask, "Can you share their proposal with me?"
Ross: That's a good one.
Deepak: Yeah. I'd always asked for proposals sharing because you learn through every rejection that you get and the beautiful thing about a decentralized business is that you can do kind of high volume lead gen of that nature and you can assimilate and collate a lot of information about what your competitors are doing.
Then I began to get a bit smarter with it was I began to record my process and then I would give it and I would outsource it. Now I can give that to someone based in India or the Philippines and for five to $7 per hour, just two hours a day, they could submit 20 applications on Upwork and 20 applications on angel.co and all of a sudden I'm sending out 40 proposals a day and I'm not actually involved.
In the early days, I won about £20,000 worth of work from Craigslist; you can do the same thing on Craigslist, you can do the same thing on Gumtree because there are small businesses who are profitable. Craigslist gives you the direct email to respond to that application, so again, you're able to, on a platform like Craigslist, go to the busiest cities and you can Google it and it's like San Francisco is one of the busiest cities, which makes sense for Craigslist.
You've got these startup guys, who are quite ‘anti-recruitment company’ that decide to put job ads on all of the free portals of which Craigslist is a significant one. You just repeat ultimately the same process that you were doing on Angel.
I quickly then began to realize that where else can I replicate this exact same process? That was Upwork, that was Angel, that was Craigslist, that was Gumtree and then all of a sudden you then focus as you got smarter at it, looking for people that would advertise for paid positions that were either remote or in-house and then just begin going solely off to those guys.
Aligning Agency Trust with Personal Brand Trust
Ross: Jessica is asking a really good question on this and that came to my head as well. If you were pitching that to me, she's asking at what point would you let the client know that you're working as an agency rather than they're not buying Deepak, they're buying Deepak ‘s agency?
Deepak: Jessica, you could let them know at any stage of the process and the part that's important here, is those three alignments we spoke about. What they want to look at is, “does Deepak feel built out enough as an individual that, you know what, I think I could work with his agency anyway?” That's where having a personal brand becomes super important.
Because their mindset is, I want to work with an individual. But then if they look up Pearl Lemon or they look up your agency and they see that, you know what? Deepak's got his brand there, he's got these videos, it feels like it's going to be a very personal experience.
What's powerful when you go through the Angel process, is that it became really useful for me to get into the mindset of the business owner, because then I began posting jobs on Angel to understand the process they went through when they were putting an ad up online. That gave me a decent insight into what people are doing on the other side.
Tools for Managing Remote Teams
Ross: Ankit is asking if you use any tools to deal with management of remote teams? So he said like Google Drive and things like that, it's one of the things. Is there anything else you're using for a kind of day to day communications thing? He's also asked about cold emails, but we'll go into that in a second.
Deepak: For my day to day communication guys, we use Basecamp to manage processes. That's where once a client comes on board, we'll know the specific steps that they need to follow, but in terms of communication, we use WhatsApp.
Most of our project management happens on WhatsApp. That's how we communicate with clients as quickly as we can, we get them off email and we'd get them onto something that can make use of voice or video, we're as a team quite ultimately anti-email. I found it enables us to communicate more effectively with our clients. They get a lot more alignment in terms of, what's the tonality? What's the meaning behind what you're trying to say and ultimately it's a hundred times faster.
By the way, you also use this for pitching. If you ever get an email and you see their mobile numbers in the signature, WhatsApp them, because it's a huge pattern interrupt. It's a huge pattern interrupt and even better, what we've begun doing recently is we'll get our phone and we'll record a video saying, "Hey Frank, it's Deepak here from Pearl Lemon, I just saw your phone number in the email. I just wanted to say," whatever you want to say and then you can send a video across on WhatsApp.
But that's again, it depends who you're dealing with within the business. We've got a couple of corporate clients who whilst the people they report to like big emails, we just send them WhatsApp voice notes and videos and then they use that and that's the kind of dialogue they prefer.
Ross: I absolutely love that. I actually stole that idea from you and implemented it with some of our clients and I can confirm that it does work really well.
A Hiring Process for a Remote Agency
Talking about people and things like that, one of the things I've mentioned at the start was you helped me kind of automate a part of our hiring funnel and it's worked really well for us. Can you talk about how you're going through the hiring process to actually hire people into the agency remotely? Because usually, it's a phone call in a face-to-face and all sorts of prolonged processes. Are you using recruiters, how you're doing it?
Deepak: Guys, if you're thinking about hiring, these are the often challenges you get met with, you sink a lot of time and people that are already ultimately not effective or the best people and it can be for all kinds of reasons. It's not just cultural fit. It could be their commute to work, it could be their commute to clients. It could be any number of reasons.
In terms of recruitment, we don't use recruiters. I use, again Angel. Where I pitch is also where I hire, I use Upwork, I use Craigslist, I use Gumtree. All of the platforms that I began to pitch people on those, I also began to post adverts to see if I could hire people. That was really great on both sides to get used to the pitching process because I was being pitched too, as well as pitching.
Then the second stage of it is, it's really, really important to make sure that you have your T's and your I's dotted and crossed. For us that was, if you're working remotely, how fast is your machine? I would ask people to send a screenshot of the spec of their machine. I got a sense of how quickly they can open up four different Chrome browsers, because if that was slow, I knew that would impact their ability to deliver work to me.
There's certain prerequisites in the onboarding form. That's your wifi speed upload download, you need to send me a screenshot of a speed test, your actual machine spec, you need to send me a screenshot of the machine that you use.
The third element is that you need to send a video introduction of yourself. Then all of a sudden you know that they haven't got a camera or you know that there's problems with their audio or you hear children running around in the background and you think, I don't know if that person can be on client calls.
There's lots and lots of layers of due diligence that happen and at that stage, we ask them to send a WhatsApp voice note to Lydia, my internal marketing director to proceed with the next stage of the application. Then they need to get onto WhatsApp and then what we look for, is how quickly to their responsibility is messages, do they use read receipts and how quickly and effectively are they responding, because we want to know if they're quick responders.
If all of that happens, then they'll set up a call with... well no, sorry, once all of that happens, Lydia has a preset built series of voice notes from me, so she'll forward all of the voice notes to the candidate. "Hi, it's Deepak here. If you receiving this, it's just on Lydia's WhatsApp. Thank you so much, et cetera, et cetera," and then we judged for how quickly did they respond to the answers, how effective are their answers, to see how robust are they?
In that stage, if Lydia is happy, then we set up a phone call with myself and that's kind of the process that by the time they even get to talking to me, there's been so much weeding out that you get someone who is familiar with recording videos, presents themselves relatively well, has good wifi at home, have responded to all of Lydia's messages quickly and can present on voice note relatively well.
We don't look at resumes, we point-blank, don't look at resumes. I ignore them for almost 100% of people because once we get to that stage, I know that someone's pretty switched on if they've gone through all of that process because a lot of people just can't be bothered. That guys in a big nutshell is my recruitment process.
Pricing Structures for Remote Agencies
Ross: There's interesting stuff coming from Abhay, he's asking on pricing in particular. Does it change based on client or operating costs or deliverables? How do you set a pricing strategy for your business? Are you putting together packages, are the all unique bespoke, how do you begin to approach that? If it's a massive company, does the place change if it's a small company, how do you work?
Deepak: Abhay, I think that one of the things that become important to have productized offerings, in its simplest essence, we have strategies that we take people on, but then in terms of pricing, we have silver, gold, and bronze. Having three options gives clients an opportunity to pick between price plans, as opposed to just picking yes or no; that's the first thing.
In terms of how then does price differentiate, you need to build enough profit in, so there's a decent degree of flexibility with the actual plans that you offer. For us, we'd have a plan that starts from maybe £2500, and it will go up to £6,000 and between those, there's a lot of kind of differentials in terms of what I can adjust based upon the actual client and the delivery.
I think per client pricing tends to lean me towards being a bit more like a software company and it becomes difficult, I think at times. But every agency is a little bit different and I think that the great thing with yourself being based in India, I presume, is that you do have the margin for flexibility, because you've got economies of scale that can work well and work really well for you.
The other things that I tend to do Abhay, in terms of determining pricing, I try and keep it flat, especially as you scale your agency and all of my sales team work on commission. The sales team that I work with now, all commission-based and they get a percentage based upon deals that they close. It's in my interest to offer productized services for all of them because they deal with all of the leads that come in and it doesn't scale very well when they need to adjust per plan.
There's still some degree of flexibility, but having standardized pricing, we've standardized packages that demonstrate value and that's probably the biggest challenge that as Ross used to talk about, having a really effective statement of work, having really effective line by line value adds becomes important, especially when your sales team are selling it, so that's kind of, what's worked for us.
One of the other things that we would do when I was just starting out, was I would have that virtual assistant who would do the Angel funnel for me, I would say, "Can you Google SEO agency London, can you then have a look at what companies appear? Can you then just quickly look and see for their branded search, all of the websites they appear on and then can you put all of those into a spreadsheet and then can you register Pearl Lemon on every single same website?"
That's the other way to consider it that, that you can still in a remote-only entire model win corporate clients because we're not out of Malta or out of Utah, United States; they don't care about your office. They just care about your perceived expertise. That's kind of the other myth that I guess I want to blow.
Ross: That was a fantastic one there. If they are not from where you're from, they really don't care where the offices are. That's absolutely amazing. The lead gen stuff that is like extreme not, I'm actually going to use that.
Remote Work Routine
I want to learn a little bit about Deepak, the man, the method, the legend, in terms of when you're doing your actual work. I know where you are because I see you send me a photograph of you working at 4:30 every morning. What is it like working out of places that are not your home when you're going into local places? What's that like?
Deepak: It's a good question. I do have an office of sorts, an office really and what people think about when you think about an office, it's about building a powerful routine. That's really what an office in my mind constitutes. I want to have a place of work, but I know I can go to every day and when I'm there, it's about working.
So, as you'll notice, this is my place of doing webinars, because I'm always sat with this damn pillow and this is probably similar to a lot of you guys. Equally, I go to Costa coffee, I have noise-blocking headphones. I put on a YouTube white noise, so I put white noise on YouTube. I turn it up relatively high. It blocks out everything around me. I close all my tabs in and then I start working and that's kind of the process that I'll follow.
I still do the Upwork proposal process Ross, but because it's templatized now, it takes me four minutes, 45 seconds on average to submit 10 proposals a day. Then from that, I'll maybe win a new business five to $7,000 a month in new business.
That's kind of an example of the routine that I'll follow and then also on all of the platforms that we have, like Clutch, DesignRush, Google My Business, it's standardized into the process that the sales team follow up. As soon as the guys get the first-month report and they're happy, we get a review from everybody.
The Power of Client Reviews
We also get reviews from partners that we work with, so if we hire an intern, as part of the induction process, 30 days in they have to leave a review on Glassdoor, they have to leave a personal review for me on LinkedIn.
I've got 78 recommendations on LinkedIn, who has that? I have that because I'd make everyone as a process, leave me a review, leave me a review, even if you work with me for four days. There's like some insights into some of the things that I do to continue building that kind of brand strength and reputation and routines, that I think are powerful.
Ross: That's fascinating. You're creating the virtuous cycles of things that are self-reinforcing, it's incredibly smart and getting them to do it at the start. Usually, what happens with Glassdoor, as you ask employees to fill out, when they leave your company and a considerably different mindset when they're leaving. First month, excellent. Do you do that with clients as well?
Deepak: As soon as someone says, "Deepak, I'm really happy with the report," we have the Bit.ly link that goes straight to a review page. I don't like to have any review that isn't documented, so if it isn't on a public platform, then for me, that's not a review I can do much with and that's basically something for me that's critically important.
If Ross ever says, "Well done," I'll say, "Amazing Ross," and I send him a direct link that opens up to Google My Business and I get him to write a review. In some instances where you get lazy clients, you pre-write the actual review, and then you send it to them and say, "Look, change anything you want or if you think this is that accurate, just post it," Most of the time, they just post it because they're like, "Yeah, I agree. Fine."
Again, guys the reward versus return for me writing a Google review on behalf of my client, takes about a minute and I send it to them and I say, "Look, you need to edit this if you're not happy with it." It's still technically their words, their writing, but then they just post it, because everyone's lazy, so you need to enable the self-fulfilling process.
This is how when you look at Pearl Lemon, how do we get a hundred reviews on Google My Business? It's this process. No one touches Pearl Lemon, whether the contractor, full time, remote client without leaving a review of the business, never, 100% of the people tend to leave reviews for us.
I specifically do outreach in cities that aren't in London, because then there's no reason for clients to want to meet me and that was a big shift in our business, that we avoided the in-person meet because we target successful companies in Manchester or successful companies in Glasgow or Birmingham because then I knew that everything would potentially be remote, but they were looking to do business with a firm who could achieve results.
I wanted to work with clients who were remote first, who are comfortable with the process and weren’t really interested that much in meeting. But that's kind of a decision I think that you guys can make upfront and over the longer term, as we've seen you do begin to win corporate clients because they have a habit of finding you and that's, what's worked for us.
Ross: Deepak where can the guys find out more about you and try and copy all these amazing strategies you've been going over today?
Deepak: Guys, if you go to deepakshukla.com/blog, so go to my website, you'll see that I blog every day, once a day, I'm in day 33, and I've got a guide there that's three and a half thousand-word piece about how we're changing our strategy because of the Coronavirus. I blog there every day, head over and take a look, you'll find a lot of my thoughts there.
Ross: Fantastic. All right guys, we hope you've enjoyed this one. Please tune in a couple of weeks’ time, when we're going to be doing this again. We hope you're all well, staying safe, staying healthy, and until next time, we'll see you later.
Deepak: See you guys.