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How To Start And Scale an SEO Agency #3




Deepak: Hello, everybody. For those who have just joined us, welcome back to episode three of how to start and scale an SEO agency. Kevin, hello.

Kevin: Hi.

Deepak: Where are you from, and where are you today?

Kevin: I'm in Oxford at the moment. I'm normally based in London. But yeah, working from home instead today.

Deepak: Guys, if you're wondering who in the heck I am, I'm Deepak. I'm based in London, and I'm at home right now. Kevin, first of all, welcome. I had a lot of fun looking you up, and looking up Re:signal, whilst I was doing a bit of a start before you came on. 

What I'm going to be asking Kevin a little bit about is, briefly I want to hear about the history of Re:signal, and your story in SEO. And then what we're going to do is rapidly move on to how you have, and how some of our audience can ultimately start winning some of the corporate clients that you've had the pleasure of working with, still working with, or whatever fashion that may be.

Briefly, I'd love to hear just a little bit about your background in SEO, and then how you became an agency owner, and where you are today.

Kevin: Yeah, sure.  I started in 2003 back as a student, a web design agency. But at a time where that agency was starting to offer SEO's to its clients as kind of an add-on service. I found that a lot more interesting than I did the web development side of things.

Finding Your Passion for SEO

Deepak: Were you an actual developer at that stage? Were you developing, or what was your role within that agency at that time?

Kevin: I was on a placement. I was in the third year of a course. The plan was to go back, which I did, for the fourth year after, doing one year at a design agency. I did a mix of computing, business, bit of marketing. It's that stage of life where it's like, you're learning what you actually want to do. For me, web development kind of ... it was interesting and I enjoyed building websites. 

The optimizing side ... excited me more. I like the fact that you could change something one day, and then just see the impact that you can get the next.

Deepak: When did the transition happen to a full-blown kind of SEO agency owner? Because I presume at that point, had you moved from that agency student into building your own agency? Or were you working within that agency, and getting a handle for SEO? 

Kevin: I did that for a year. I learned alongside this about SEO and even affiliate marketing. It got me hooked, it was an initial insight. There's someone that I follow online, Tom Bilyeu, who'd the founder of Quest Nutrition Bars, see. Incredibly successful guy. He always talks about how you don't have a passion, you find it. Because no one's passionate about SEO until you're good at it.

Deepak: Here's that opportunity to ask the audience. Guys, for all of the agency owners that are in the audience, or even within the space of SEO, did you fall into SEO? Or did you go out and decide that you wanted to build an SEO agency? Because you fell into it, I fell into it and discovered that, "You know what, I quite like this." 

Kevin: That's an interesting question...no one knew what it was back then. Everyone was making up as they go along. And you don't go to school and think ... I had someone recently saying their ... I think it's their daughter, wants to grow up and be a YouTube influencer. It's kind of like, to me, that sounds crazy because I don't even think computers were much of a thing when I was growing up. To say that you wanted to do SEO in any sort of age group just would have been an alien concept.

Deepak: I was reading up the company history. There's a lot of awards that you've won, there's a lot of speaking that you've done. And there's corporate clients that you've had under your roster. Was that the vision when you started Re:signal? Or was it the case that, "I think I'm going to just open up shop, so to speak, and kind of see what happens."

Kevin: In the early days, it's “open up shop”. It feels like the right answer is, “oh, no, I had this grand plan all along, and it's gone perfectly”, (but) it would just be a complete lie. I kind of feel like starting small, let's say, and I just want to learn some stuff and get excited about it.

I wouldn't even say I started an agency. I went freelance, I moved to Australia. I picked up a couple of clients that would pay me money for work at the same time. And a year later, at the end of a working holiday, I had enough clients and income that it was probably equivalent to what a salary and a job would be. 

Deepak: Was your first client a local Australian that you met in a bar, then? Or was it someone who'd based in the UK, or do you remember how that all played out?

Kevin: Yeah, I did some work development for some people at the time. I mean, looking back now, it's probably not a huge amount of money. But when you're traveling, and you need work, it was just a nice intro into, "Okay, well I can do some web development. I can do some optimization." And then it led there. 

I kind of feel like a lot of it was, "I'm learning about where my skills are." I wouldn't say I would follow the money. It's more the, "Where am I curious, what am I interested in?" The more you're interested in something, the more you work hard at it, and you get better at it. 

Which is kind of my point about, you don't naturally have a passion from day one. You try things, and then once you get good at it, you improve because you have that level of interest. If you're not interested in it, you're never going to get better.

Should You Specialize in SEO Niches as an Agency?

Deepak: And what's your response with that in mind, then, to someone who thinks, "Well Kevin, I'm told more and more that I should niche. I'm told I should either be a WordPress SEO guy, or I should be a link building specialist. Are specialisms something that someone who's starting out should be thinking about?

Kevin: I never like to tell people what to do. I can share my advice, on this is what has worked for me. In my opinion, the way that it's worked best for me is, I've learned about a breadth of different things. In the early days, I've done web development, I've done web design, I've practiced SEO, I've done paid search. 

If I hadn't tried those things, I wouldn't have figured out what it is that I'm really passionate about, where my skill set is, and where I want to go afterwards. Now I feel like that deep expertise in SEO has come off the back of seeing how the other elements work. I feel like personally I'm stronger at SEO, due to the fact that I have that breadth of knowledge. But I would never be as experienced in it if I tried to do absolutely everything, and spread myself too thin.

My view is when you're starting out, try a bit of everything. Dip your toe in. You're not going to have all the answers. You're not going to know where you want to focus. 

I think it's just been a kind of evolution of time, and where I've ended up focusing is, yeah, kind of what I find that I'm good at. And then as we get further down the journey in terms of an agency where you attract clients, is where you have case studies...et cetera, et cetera. It then snowballs from there.

Deepak: How big is your agency now? What's your answer to that? 

Kevin: I've asked myself a lot of questions over why am I doing what I'm doing? What does big mean? To answer the question as it's intended, we are a team that have grown from freelancer rates, up to 1.5 million turnover. We've had a team up to the size of 17 or 18 full-time people. We've now scaled back, and are now more of a hybrid of, I call London-base kind of strategy, the account management team. And a network of content producers, freelance consultants.

We changed our model a little bit as well. We've got less clients now than we would have had in the past, but we work with bigger brands now than we would have had in the past as well. It's kind of, what's your definition of how far do you want to take things? What does success look like for you, that might not be the version that other people want to do either, if that makes sense.

Balancing a Long-term Agency Vision with a Short-term Focus

Deepak: When you're starting an agency, I think it can be very easy to be overwhelmed by looking at numbers like that. What's your advice to someone who is in Idaho, the United States. Or the outskirts of Bombay, India. What's your advice to someone who's thinking "Oh wow, Kevin, that just seems like a world away to me."

Kevin: The point is that you want to have a longer-term vision that you're working towards. But you also want to work alongside people that are on the same journey as you. And you want to mentor people that are on their way up. 

I've always been quite strong at having a longer-term vision, and knowing where we want to go, and where we want to get to.

If I'm honest, I've probably struggled more of the day-to-day of, "What do we do right now," as opposed to, "Where do we want to be in three to five years?" It's really important, I think, to have a mix of both. 

You don't want to just get stuck in the day-to-day, and you end up on the treadmill. But at the same time, if all your thinking is the blue sky picture sort of thing, you need to do what to get there. 

I feel like there's almost like a resetting, where do you want to be? Where do want to go? And just keep continually moving that forward, and try to make it about your own story, as opposed to just an external expectation of what you should be doing.

Deepak: Guys, if you're listening, I really like what Kevin said there about having your own story. About being innovative to a degree. And also, a big recognition that I think that you've made, which I quite like, is recognizing what your skill sets are and being conscious of that. And then, I'm assuming you've probably got someone who's quite a good foil for you in the business, who is very operationally-driven, who really loves the day-to-day. 

Landing Big-Name Clients as an SEO Agency

Is there a strategy that you've got for landing the bigger brands that you work with, versus landing the clients in Australia? What's your general thought on client acquisition?

Kevin: My general thought is it's in many ways no different. It's potentially more of a mindset shift. And what I mean by that is, what we're doing today to attract global brands that we're working with, isn't that much different, to be honest, what we did 10 years ago with attracting local brands.

To be honest, in terms of what's really driven growth of big clients, it's never been a sales-led approach. It's more, to a certain extent marketing. But even then, it's doing good work with people. Being patient. 

A lot of our best clients have come from people that we've done a good job for. If you do a good job with a client, that client will remember it, they'll retain you sometimes. People move around companies and end up as time goes on getting promoted to more senior positions. If you've done good work for them before, there's a good chance they'll rehire you somewhere else. That's worked very well for us as a tactic in the past.

Deepak: For me, one of the secrets isn't a secret..it is that “do good work, and kind of hang in there”, and things do begin to happen for you, if you're still around.

Kevin: They do. And to be honest, as much as that sounds obvious, I think it took me a long time to realize that. Our most solid clients come through relationships. How do I reconnect with the people I've known over a long period of time, and understand what their challenges are, what is it that they're doing, how can we help them? Kind of stay in front of mind, but also relevant to them. It's not just a one-way thing of, “let's publicize myself as much as possible.” 

Following Up with Prospective Clients

Deepak: The question that Naveed has got is... What do say to someone that you've pitched, you don't hear from them? Or maybe they talked about working with you at some point in the future. Is there a process that you follow, to follow up as such? 

Kevin: God, I'm really bad at that. Honestly, I feel like my strength is, it's more kind of the initial awareness. I mean, I'm a strategist at heart in terms of, I will help people find a solution for their problem. I'll be very honest with them when I say, "Actually I don't know SEO's the right thing for you," or "It's the wrong time to be focused in on that." 

I found actually it has been a really positive reaction. When I've said that, I've had people that have come back to me before and hired us. And they've hired us because I've pushed them back for 12 months and said, "You need to sort out your website or CMS before you even engage with us because that's the biggest thing you should be fixing." 

Sometimes people do come back. Even if you don't hear back from people sometimes if you're giving them the right advice ... I always have the approach that in some ways, you've never lost a pitch. Like everything that you do, nothing is lost forever.

If you give people the best advice you can, they may have taken advice that doesn't work for them. They may come back to you. And that's certainly happened, a number of times in our case.

Deepak: I think that that's excellent advice. Saying no, where no is the right answer. It's a value-led tactic, right? And the most effective form, I think, of sales, is leading with value. 

Using SEO on Your Agency Websites to Land Clients

Greener SEO has asked another quite good question for lead acquisition. Have you found SEO as a good strategy to get SEO clients? He's specifically asked, have you found positioning your website for good rankings has helped you get clients?

Kevin: Yeah. I mean in the early days, it did. We ranked number one for, I think it was for search marketing. And we've ranked number one for SEO agency, stuff like that, in the past. That's worked very well in terms of quantity of leads. The quality is very mixed. 

Just because it's quite high-search volumes, and people are making inquiries off the back of it being kind of large intent for looking to hire an agency off of those terms, you're going to get people all different shapes and sizes. Pre-qualifying those leads can be quite time-consuming. But you do get some good ones out of it. I would say it works. 

I mean, if you think of this as a strategy you'd have for a client, we always try and always bucket the keywords into awareness, consideration, conversion. Consideration being, you're comparing that service or product there to someone else. SEO agency is something where people would be searching for an agency, but they don't particularly have one in mind.

What has worked better for us is probably more awareness. If there's a typical challenge, say, you want to do a site migration, content marketing,  et cetera. If someone's got a specific challenge they're searching for, and you've got an informative blog piece you can attract traffic from...certain people read that. Quite often we've had inquires that have come off the back of, "Oh, I read that article that you wrote about this." 

It's just much more focused and targeted. Also, it's less competitive, because people have found you, and they're making an inquiry because you've already answered that question. You're standing apart from the crowd straight away, due to the fact that you've showcased your expertise in that area, as opposed to it being kind of a bit narrow.

Even if you rank for SEO agency, typically the type of people that will do that search and make inquiries will click on the top five or six listings, and make inquiries elsewhere. And you'll end up in a competitive pitching process.

But the more focused and granular that you are, I feel like the more specific the inquiries will get. They're now probably more focused around what you want them to be. 

Deepak: I think that what's interesting for me, on the basis of what you said, is that I agree that trying to rank for SEO Agency London, as an example; or even WordPress SEO agency, you're going to be going still through a competitive pitching process. If I'm looking for that search term, I'll probably maybe copy-paste the same inquiry, and send it off to four agencies, and see what response I get. And you get put into a pitching process.

What about the case for the person who comes and says, "You know what, Kevin? I'm still at the stage where I'm trying to decide. And I've got a case study, let's say. But you know what? It's not an industry that was great for me. We got a good result in the travel agency. We worked with Booking.com. But they were really difficult to work with. So what do I do now? What's your advice to someone who's not yet at that stage, where they are happy to go with that similar type of client?

Kevin: Yeah, there's an argument for sure that you don't want to narrow your focus too thinly. I mean, just take coronavirus right now. If all of your clients are in the travel sector and not spending money, that's a risk to your business. You can be in a situation where you have some clients that are proportionally larger than others. And again, that's a risk to the business. I feel like there's definitely an argument of, trying to spread that risk as much as you can. 

How Does a Major Global Disruption Affect an SEO Agency?

Deepak: One of the questions that Serge has asked is, how have you, if at all, been affected by Covid-19? I'd love to get your commentary on that, Kevin. 

Kevin: I think there's a couple of answers. One is from a business perspective. It's no different in some ways, to other instances in the past. I started a business in 2006, 2007, coming into the recession, et cetera. At that point in time, I probably didn't even realize what that would mean in terms of debt. 

Because if you're starting, the only way is up. Certainly, over the last year or so, Brexit has caused a lot of people to freeze the budget, as opposed to reduce it. I've been seeing a lot of cases.

It's a case of not getting too carried away in the good times. Not getting too carried away and over-investing, so that when things don't go as well, you have a bit of a buffer, and you know what to expect. You don't have to react too badly. 

There's a very good story in the book, Good to Great, which is about Southwest Airlines in the US, which I think they were the only airline after 9-11 what didn't make redundancies for that very reason, that they didn't push as aggressively as they could have in the good times. They held back a little. 

Then when the bad times came along, they were much more prepared and agile, and able to adapt, as opposed to just going with the market, in whatever direction it went. I think as a business owner, you have to be more mindful of that. 

And certainly some of the decisions we've made ... Not around coronavirus, but I can see that it's put us in good shape now. Let's just invest in what's important. Let's have a scalable model, so we can deal with clients if they need a big content campaign for three months. We don't over-invest in fixed costs and overheads.

Deepak: Over time you'll see that there'll be issues, whether globally financial or globally medical, that can temporarily—this is the important point—temporarily interrupt your business. In those times, talking about the business case, it's a good reminder to think about what you're doing to shore up your defenses. If you've done good business, then it means that in the good times, you will get referrals.

My business has been significantly affected by Covid-19. We've lost our fourth client today, in the last 30 days. The first one is, I've got an import-export business, who are based in China. They pretty much, straight after the new year said, "Look, we're ceasing anything that relates to marketing immediately." Second client was a hair transplant clinic that are based in Budapest. They had a lot of their business that came from Italy. They said, "We sent all of our staff home. We might be out of business." 

Let's ask Kevin. In a situation like mine, Kevin, what would your advice be to someone who feels that, "Kevin, these things are outside of my control. My business has been decimated. What do we do? How do we survive?"

Kevin: There's a couple, I think. I think one is perspective. We decided yesterday to let everyone work remotely. My view is very much a view of what we were saying earlier, we're saying no to proposals if it's the right thing. You have to play the long game. 

One example is, there's a pitch we were supposed to go to tomorrow. I've never pulled out of a pitch before and I'd always try and do it face-to-face. We're going to put our team first, because if we win that pitch but our team got coronavirus ... that's just a ridiculous sense of priorities.  I feel like in this situation, it's very much health is wealth. You have to put yourself first, before your business. You have to put your people first in your team, before your own profits. And you will have an element of, you need to scale back.

I feel like, as an agency owner...you fall into the industry, because you're good at the craft. I was good at SEO, and then I just kind of grew into the role in the business. The stuff that you're not good at is, how do you financially cashflow-forecast? How do you deal with HR challenges? Et cetera, et cetera. All of this stuff that you have to learn on the job, because it's the really important part of how you grow a team, and keep people engaged, and keep a company alive through economic crises, et cetera. 

I think it comes back to, yeah, what are your values, what are you trying to get out of things? You're going to have some times where it's harder. As long as you have an approach where maybe you can be a bit leaner in those times. You're not always fighting short-term growth. But you can scale back, and you can scale up as you need to. I feel like that then puts you in good stead.

Can a Fully Remote SEO Agency Be Successful?

Deepak: The current medical situation aside, what are your thoughts on building a remote SEO agency? Because you also said at the same time that you normally always pitch face-to-face. I'd love to get your thoughts generally on that process, and what you did, and just where you see it going, and what your advice is to anybody who is thinking about, "Well, I need more staff," or, "I need a team."

Kevin: I spent a lot of time thinking about this. We've just come out of a five-year lease on our office, which was quite expensive for what we needed. I'd almost say like the last year or that, I've contemplated, do we go fully remote? I've spoken to the team quite openly about, what would they like to do? And in the end, I think the decision from consulting with the team, and just thinking about myself, in terms of other agencies is, if you start today, there's no reason why you couldn't be a remote agency. But I do think face-to-face is a lot more powerful.

If you're having a video conference for a pitch, for example, you don't get the face-to-face reaction you could get...it just doesn't feel the same as if you were in person. That said, a lot of people...I think myself included...probably do their best work when it's an individual project, and you can just focus and get stuff done.

I think having a mix is really key. What we've done, actually for two years, is we work from home Wednesdays. This is treated as a day where I find it useful myself. I feel like we've now very much gone hybrid. We've moved to a smaller office in a WeWork building in London. 

We have our working space. We still do flexible working of Wednesdays, and we're actually doing that as an optional second day. Being flexible around client meetings. We try and keep one to two days a week as optional from work-from-home. Some people prefer the office. And so we're not saying, "Don't come into the office." We're saying, "You have the option if you would like to work from home to do it”. 

Deepak: I think that what I have found interesting is that I set up our agency with the desire to be completely remote, and the desire to actually not ever meet any of our clients. What has happened, though, is that my head of SEO, Semil, based in Vadodara, India, there's an office of seven people in India now. They decided to do an office independently. And that I've seen has become a huge help. I have had the approach of saying, I'd rather not meet people.

But what's changed is that, coincidentally, one of the clients that we reached out to, happened to live a mile down the road from where I am in London. He's gone on to refer so much business, because we'll just go for like a breakfast meet, or a coffee now and again. That face-to-face element has really been interesting.

Ironically, having set out to do the opposite of what Kevin originally did, I now would be like, "You know what, hybrid just, it's what we do." It sounds like it's better for everybody.

Kevin: Because there's relationships. Once you've met someone face-to-face, that relationship is so much easier to strengthen. You don't need to see your clients every day. You don't necessarily need to see them every month. One of our clients we went to dinner with earlier in the week.

Can You Run an SEO Agency and Manage Client Relationships Simultaneously?

Deepak: When it's completely remote, it's very, very difficult. And it sounds like you've got a really good environment now. Guys, we've got six minutes left. Naveed is asking, can you run the firm? Can you be the agency CEO and the client relationship manager at the same time? Can you do that, Kevin? What's your take?

Kevin: I can't. I think you can at different sizes. I have at different sizes. And you have to be in many ways a role that fits every fence, in the face of company, the clients want to see you as a result of that, et cetera. But there's a really good book which is called Traction. And there's one called, Get a Grip. They're both the same sort of series, by Gino Wickman. 

The essentials of it is, you have a visionary role and an integrator. You might call it strategy and operations. It's a bit of a left-brain, right-brain. You're good at one thing, you're not so good at the other. As we touched on earlier, I've always been quite strong with the bigger-picture thinking, and I'm very strategic with clients. I'm not a project manager at all, and if you talk to me about the day-to-day basics, you're talking to the wrong person. 

Deepak: I'm going to go on to the next question, Kevin, just because I want to make sure we get all of your questions answered. 33bigmoney, I like your name, 33bigmoney. He's asking, would you say you're more stressed now, than when you started your agency?

Kevin: I've always been quite good at managing stress. And I wouldn't say I've always been perfect at it by any means. But am I more stressed now? No, I feel like actually you're almost leading on from the last question. I've embraced my weaknesses, which I think is actually a really good exercise in terms of self-reflection of, what is it that I'm not good at? How can I hire people that are better at that than me? I feel there are times when I've been stressed in the past, is when I'm taking on too much, and I'm doing stuff that I don't enjoy.

Deepak: Those are excellent answers. I think that recognizing what your strengths are, and recognizing what your weaknesses are, is a big thing. Then playing on the basis of that is really, really important. 

Starting an SEO Agency During a Global Disruption

We are coming to the last couple of minutes of the show, and I'm going to finish up with ... And this is a really important question for all of you that are listening. Kevin, in 60 seconds, if you have to start everything again today, we're in the middle of a global meltdown. I want to start an SEO agency. Kevin, what do I do?

Kevin: I think looking back at what I did, my first client was myself. What I mean by that is, I marketed myself by learning what I was doing, and talking about it to the point that I would generate leads. 

I feel like, if you can treat yourself as your biggest client in the early days, and you can promote yourself and share your learnings, and do good work but try to amplify that, and make sure that you can use that as a strength, that's the way that you can start to attract new business, and grow off the back of it. There's always challenges, but you fix them as they come along.

Deepak: Kevin, I absolutely, absolutely loved that. That answered the previous question about client acquisition. Treat yourself, everybody, as your own client. Do practice what you preach. You can become your own case study. 

Run an audit of your own website, run an audit of your own brand, and make sure that you're not the dentist who's got terrible teeth, and is advising about how to get pearly whites. Because the guy smiles at you and you're like, "Buddy, I can't take advice from you about my pearly whites." 

For everybody watching, that you so much for being here.. And Kevin, Kevin, Re:signal. Everybody, just Google Kevin. Google Re:signal. Right. Everybody, I will catch you on the other side. Bye, now.

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