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How To Start And Scale an SEO Agency




Deepak: Hello everybody from wherever in the world that you're watching. I welcome you to the inaugural show of How to Start and Scale an Agency. Welcome Felipe, how are you, my friend?

Felipe: I'm very well, thank you. Thank you for having me here. 

Deepak: No problem. We're going to formally get going and maybe two or three minutes we'll give people some time to come in. Felipe, what country and city are you in my friend? We've not even introduced ourselves.

Felipe: Well, yeah, at the moment in Sao Paolo Brazil where we hand one of our offices so I tend to stay here when it's warm and go to the UK when it gets a little bit warmer.

Deepak: Good man. Sao Paulo, so it's my favorite Brazilian city. If you're thinking about fundamentally moving into the agency space or you're already in the agency space...then this is going to be a really exciting webinar. 

I've not looked at the statistics, but the amounts of freelancers and agency owners that are popping up, it's growing at an incredible rate and there isn't really a business that doesn't need marketing services.

With this in mind thinking of course predominantly about SEO, I'm really excited to introduce Felipe. Felipe is the CSO, the chief SEO officer...at Hedgehog Digital.

Felipe is, of course, coming in live to you from Sao Paolo. And Felipe is really amazingly recognized as being one of the top SEOs within the country of Brazil, and that's no joke.

SEO Agency USP: Talk Business, Not SEO

I think that it's a really interesting challenge that a lot of agencies will have: how do we clearly define a USP? Everyone says that they can rank you well, a lot of people will talk of doing the same things. 

What is the kind of narrative that's proven really powerful when you go into the meetings that you have or the prospective phone calls that you have, what is it that you talk about in terms of your SEO as a company that has helped you differentiate yourself?

Felipe: Well, I think the secret is trying to talk less SEO and more business-wise, more marketing-wise. We try to avoid technicalities. I'm an SEO that doesn't really worry too much about this algorithm updates because...the way we work we're trying to focus more on the user and that's where we get the results from.

I see a lot of pandemonium going around, "Oh, there's a core update and there's this, that and the other." And that's what we try to avoid our clients from learning or getting to know because that kind of puts a lot of technicalities into it and focusing too much on positioning. 

I'm not going to be a hypocrite here saying that we don't focus on getting the first position, but...we try to point them to the direction of how SEO can help them achieve their business goals. 

How can we integrate SEO into their global marketing strategies and how can that be helping generate more business? That's the unique selling point that we bring to the table. We need to get into the nitty-gritty of SEO, but our unique selling point, I would say is don't talk about SEO to sell SEO.

Deepak: And that's super counterintuitive, isn't it, for a lot of people. I mean, Pearl Lemon as an agency, we've been around three years, but I do remember pre agency life and still, even now we get pitched to do our own work or to subcontract it or to whatever. 

I just remember the conversations that I've had and it's a real challenge I think for a lot of people to not talk about now “these are the keywords, we're going to build X amount of length, we're going to do these kinds of links”. 

At what stage did you then move from building, let's say, links to actually talking commercial?

Felipe: It was recently, I think two or three years ago when I hadn't joined the Hedgehog yet. Me and Alan had been having these discussions around how we can't overcomplicate things, sometimes we go into a conversation or at sales speech and we're talking structured data and heading tags. 

And you sit there and you look at the client's face and he's going like, "Oh yes, yes, I understand that." When you talk business, I think that's when we tend to get more attention from these guys. 

I tried to use different names for it; let's say building links—I talk about references—you need to build references for your website, mentions for your websites. And I use analogies: a link is like a vault but with different weights.

Deepak: That's brilliant.

Felipe: I try to be as less technical as I can to sell SEO because I've noticed this change: we used to be contacted by the IT guys, "Oh we need SEO." It was the technical guys, the developers that hired us. 

Nowadays, I would say the majority of the talks that we do are with marketing managers, marketing directors, CMOs. You need to make them understand how SEO can be integrated into their marketing budgets, to their overall strategies.

Improving Your Productivity as an Agency

Deepak: It makes so much sense about the transition from talking about the commercial impact of SEO as opposed to the specific implications of a particular link. Aaron asked an excellent question. Aaron is asking about how to be productive or better management of his time? He's got the beautiful problem of having too many clients and having himself ultimately to manage all of this clientele.

Felipe: Pick up a good tool like SEMrush to help you streamline your technical audit and some of your on-page stuff that will give you an edge on automating some tasks.

Pick some Agile methodologies as well. We use Scrum and Kanban, so I call it Scrumban. So we use sprints with the methodology of Kanban to organize our day to day activities. I would say if you organize yourself in that way, pick up a good project management tool. 

Deepak: The productivity tools are excellent. You have to work with a tool that you can live in. If you don't enjoy Trello, if you don't enjoy a Kanban, if you don't enjoy Slack, then don't use a tool that you don't enjoy working with. I'm biased, I do love SEMrush, our whole team lives in it. I have tried to use Trello, I cannot for the life of me use Trello. 

The second part of it is, it's segmenting some of your work into buckets. Now if you can't, for example, bring in another employee because maybe it's a £25,000 salary, there you go to purchase SEMrush.

The other thing that is also critical for any of you who's struggling with daily workflows, look at anything that is well set up for virtual assistants to assist you with. If you look at your work, you can begin segmenting them in respect of building processes, and I'm pretty sure Felipe, given that you've got a 15-man organization, there's also processes that are involved across your entire team.

Felipe: I'm always on the toes of my team to get them to write down processes and improve upon them. Now we are on a quest of automating as much as we can in order to gain more time. I said the more we automate, the more time we would have to go to the beach and drink beers, yeah that motivates them. 

Process is very, very important because as you grow you need that because otherwise things get lost. There's too much noise in the communication, so we're trying to build every day our Wiki with information and videos and so on, so that's I would say one of the most important things to scale things up: process.

Using Personal Branding to Attract Larger Clients 

Deepak: That makes sense. And we've got an excellent question from Geoff. “How do we get more clients? How do we get medium, large clients for our SEO services?”

Felipe: Well, this type of client, they rarely come from let's say an email subscription or a contact form. I tend to build up the medium to larger clients through participating in webinars like this one and speaking at events and having my own YouTube channel; it's exploiting my personal brand.

Deepak: Guys, what Felipe is saying and I'm really happy that question has been asked because I also want to talk about your journey to becoming a respected SEO and we'll go onto this kind of branding part to a large degree, but the whole principle of public speaking, okay.

And if you're thinking that, "Oh well I'm not going to be on SEMrush tomorrow." Guys, I've done or we've all done, I'm sure Felipe has done and continues to do speeches at local events, speeches at local networking events. Just communicating and sharing your knowledge with a listening audience. 

Felipe, can you talk and speak about your journey with, you talk about personal branding and you talk about attending webinars, but how do you do that? For the person who's just starting out, they're thinking, "Oh, how do I go on that journey?" What's your advice to someone like that?

Felipe: First of all, get it out there, try to map events around your area, meetups or big events. And don't be shy, get there, talk to the people that are speaking on and the guy sitting next to you. You never know, it might be the organizer. 

Get out there, try to know people or you have the social networks now, Twitter, it's a very interesting group for a lot of SEOs. The community tends to be very receptive and try to talk to you sometimes.

Deepak: Practically speaking, if you want to learn how to start and scale your own agency, reach out to Felipe, reach out to myself, ask questions and given that you've been here on this webinar, it's an excellent way to kind of shortcut your learning and to see if you can get into a position where, as I'll come to ask you now, you can become one of the most respected SEOs in Brazil. 

Felipe, without further ado, I'd love to understand that journey about how you've gone on to get that kind of reputation because... How did you get that? What did it take to get there?

Felipe: Well, speaking at events was one of the main criteria that helped me get there. We've got this event here in Brazil called RD Summit. It's 14,000 people in three days in this town called Florianópolis, it's a massive event, massive. 

And I think it's the biggest digital marketing event in South in Latin America, if I'm not mistaken, one the biggest in the world. I was invited to speak there two years ago; that helped build the authority. 

Deepak: I think kind of building a brand around yourself is absolutely a critical part of the journey. I've seen LinkedIn mentioned twice, okay. I think there's a running theme amongst people that, can I message a thousand people in Brazil, Felipe, and can I build a business doing that? Because I think that's probably the undercurrent of the message. 

What are your thoughts on prospecting when it comes to the outreach process of winning SEO clients? What would you say about how that process works in your opinion?

Felipe: Well, here it's just like any other country, you can't really message ten thousand people for LinkedIn. But what I tend to do, I have been exploiting quite a lot the algorithm of the platform, which organically is still quite good. We tend to get quite a good reach on our posts, especially my personal posts, and they are reaching a lot of interesting professionals, interesting companies. 

This year alone we managed to land at least 12 contracts from LinkedIn, from my personal account. I exploit a lot of my personal brand on LinkedIn. And we don't really do much outreach, we tend to get businesses through our website and so when we don't do like not just cold calls but we don't have a strong lead generation strategy at the moment.

I think another lesson about growing is that you need to understand how fast can you grow. I think 2020 will be the year that we're going to be very aggressive with lead generation strategies. Up until now, we have been getting the businesses from my personal brand, Alan's personal brand and the network that we have, participate in the events, speaking at events and so on. 

Deepak: All of you, go and add Felipe on LinkedIn and start stalking his LinkedIn profile, right? I think the quote is from Picasso that great artists copy and the best artists steal or something to that effect. I need to remember that quote.

Go to Felipe's LinkedIn profile and have a look at what he's doing. And we've got a very international audience here guys. You've got a distinct competitive advantage if you're Dutch, if you're Serbian, if you're French, if you're competing in a market that isn't the global language of English, it does mean that you're probably likely to get even richer.

Building Your Brand with Guest Speaking

The question that I think Oliver was asking was about as he mentioned, how do you get a speaking event? Were you invited, do you pay to sponsor?

Felipe: Well, I'd say to start with, you have to sponsor it, you do have to pay to get up there and then if they like you, you start to get invites and so on. Initially, yeah, you do have to, if I would say reserve a little cash to sponsor an event, have a booth. SEO especially, it's a very crowded niche, especially for the events. You get Brighton SEO, you get ESMX events and so on.

I think if you'll read Fish Jean's biography, his book, he mentioned that in the beginning he used to pay to speak at events and I think we all did it. And that's what you have to do to get out there.

Deepak: Fundamentally, one of the key things I think is being underlined here is that prospecting is fundamentally about surrounding yourselves with people that have the wherewithal and the income and are the right people to potentially buy into your services. 

What you're paying for when you pay for a speaking event is to be a speaker in front of a captive audience or potentially decision-makers who are coming to listen to you about SEO. And all you need is one contract that will pay you back five times from an event. 

My personal experience of building out an agency, as it's developed, I think that you really, really realize that the less you talk technically when you're positioning your agency as a company to do business with, the more successful you are. 

The technical talks are for once you kick off a campaign and you're working internally with their development team or with their technical team or any of these kinds of elements and I think that's a key and critical thing. 

Managing Relationships with Different Types of Clients 

One of the biggest challenges that I've personally faced is dealing with all of the different relationships and the different styles. I've got some clients who will message our guys 15 times a day and then I've got other guys who message us once every three weeks and then you've got people that completely different expectations: some of them are all about the technical details, another person is all about the actual commercials. 

Some of them will say that, "Oh, I understand how SEO works," but then six weeks will pass and they said, "Oh, we've not made any sales yet." How in your experience has been the management of the different relationships that you face within this business?

Felipe: Well, it's very interesting that you ask that because we've got people from all over the world working. And it's interesting because each one has a different style, so you need to understand a lot more about people than just simply management and so on. 

We tend to have a specialist in each area, like in Brazil we exploit a lot the lead building side of things and we don't work with people that know SEO, we work with journalists. The lead building team in Brazil are journalists, it's a totally different ballgame, so it's not very technical. 

Deepak: Have you had a mentor? People that maybe you can WhatsApp or Slack or email or just quickly have a phone call. 

Felipe: I have been quite lucky on my journey with that. First of all, I've met Alan, who was the guy that introduced me to SEO and still a guy that I exchange a lot of knowledge and we exchange a lot of thoughts and he teaches me a lot as well, I learn from him. 

But back in the days that I was away from Hedgehog, I was working at this agency here in Brazil, SEO marketing, and there was the owner Bernard Schutz, ...and he was a great mentor to me as well. So great knowledge in SEO, a lot of different thinking, a different perspective into the game. 

Deepak: Guys, I think that you're hearing the importance of mentorship. It's a huge thing. I just want to say that mentorship is huge, right? And don't be afraid to ask for help.

If someone recognizes that you're on your journey and you're trying to make your way, then more often than not, they're happy to offer you some impartial advice. 

You might not always get a yes, often you won't, people get busy, but all you need is one or two people that take a liking to your style and an expert is very relative, it's really someone who's a bit further along your journey.

Taking the Leap from Employee to Agency

How was the journey, because you went from a director of an agency to setting up the Hedgehog Digital headquarters in Brazil? I think there's a lot of people, I mean they find it scary, stepping out on their own to build an actual agency because there's practical parts of it, right?

I think there's a lot of people in the audience that might be living at home with family or with friends or maybe in a full time, part-time job and they're thinking, how can I build an agency that's strong enough to not only provide for paying my rent and bills, but actually grow so I can have a good standard of living? 

Could you talk a little bit about your transition from deciding to be a director of an agency to setting up a whole new office because it feels to me that must be quite a scary thing?

Felipe: It certainly is because you leave the certainties of having your payment every month and so on and your bonuses and here in Brazil we have paid vacations and so on. 

I think the first and most important thing was that again I was fortunate to have this invitation by Alan to build something together and help Hedgehog grow and having known him previously, I think that was one of the things that helped me transition quite smoothly. 

The thing changes with clients especially because okay I always cared about the clients even when I was at that director, but when you are managing, it's different because you figure out I can't leave the client because that's going to affect our bottom line and so on.

If you have a steady base of clients that you can rely on and you have a good relationship of say three or four clients that you think can pay the bills, I would definitely go for it, but have a plan to scale things up, have a plan to build more clients. Ever since I planned that we had a clear mindset, we had a clear plan of action to grow. 

All you have to do is move forward. There will be hard times that you're going to, okay lost that guy, I need to go for another one. But it's important to keep motivated if you love what you're doing. Above everything, be passionate and you're going to do fine, that's it.

Quick Takeaway Tips for Starting and Scaling an SEO Agency

Deepak: As we're coming to the last six, seven minutes, I want to summarize some of the things that are kind of for me important takeaways. Number one, local networking events where you can start public speaking. Felipe mentioned Meetup. 

You can go and speak for free at a local business event and there's also cheaper events than the ones that cost thousands of pounds as your local business networking events where you can do power breakfast. If you're not yet got any content online, you can take a video camera to those events and you can start recording your own actual speeches, okay.

That's just to add to what Felipe was saying. He mentioned if you're managing a team they use Scrum and Kanban. 

His LinkedIn profile, if you're not connected with him, do connect with him because he's got a status update. He said he won 12 contracts, right? That's double digits, that's a dozen. That's 12 contracts from his personal LinkedIn profile, which has been absolutely huge. 

And also I think when he talked about making the transition, a lot of it is based upon relationships. Alan has been instrumental upon his journey. Think about the relationships that you can build in SEO, much like the journey of building out a client's SEO. 

What I'm really hearing is that it's a longterm journey. There's a lot of agency owners that come into the agency space because their perception is that, "You know what? I can pick up some marketing clients and I can just make some money and I don't really know what I'm doing."

And you can definitely do that, but to build a long-lasting brand with a good reputation in the marketplace, that will still be around in three to five years, five to 10 years...you’ve got to have the journey in mind. 

Niche vs General Agencies

Is it better to create a niche based SEO agency to target leads or to create an SEO agency in general? What's your opinion, Felipe?

Felipe: Alan has always been a guy that liked these verticals. I was more of a generalist, but I'm convinced that verticals are a good way to start your business. It's a good way to grow as well because what we've been doing lately is build case studies around different areas. 

One of the things that motivated me the most to make this move with Hedgehog was that the sports side of business. I love sports, I do CrossFit, Brazilian jujitsu, skateboard, a bit of surfing. This is one of the things that motivated us to build this vertical, sports; become a sports agency specialized in SEO.

Sports also is very broad, so we started to look into football. Alan has a blog that he built, I think it was around 2006 as well. It's called Footy-Boots. It's quite a reference in football boots and so on, which I used to write for back in the days and long story short, definitely yes, focus on verticals.

Deepak: I think that the one thing that niche agencies do incredibly well is of course the positioning and also the specialism that you build. The challenge that probably many of the audience have, which is the same challenge, I'll be honest with you that I have, that probably Felipe has, is that it takes time and patience to just do one niche. It also is really hard to say no to clients that you think could be good clients. 

Q&A on Tricky Clients, Branding, and Remote Work

I'm going to try and go through some of the questions I see here. Number one from Trendonix, how do you deal with customers only seeking fast results through SEO? What do you do?

Felipe: I try to avoid those guys because they're going to be a bit of a pain. I try to educate them if they still want fast results, it doesn't matter how much I had to pay, I said no, our niche assessment shows that it's impossible to do so, so we tend to turn them down. Sometimes they come in with a lot of money but it's just going to be trouble. 

Deepak: Saurabh was asking, how do we brand ourselves? Do we brand ourselves as the CEO or the CSO of Hedgehog Digital or as a SEO specialist or what? What do you have as an answer to how you brand your personal brand?

Felipe: Well, I think SEO specialist, an SEO expert, it's something that you need to put the money where your mouth is. But...it's just labels, anyone can go into their LinkedIn account and edit. I think what we need to have is substantiality to prove what you're doing.

Deepak: Dan Thornton asked the question. With so many people starting up SEO businesses these days, how do you focus on doing what you're doing and not getting distracted by, "Oh well maybe you could also offer ads to these guys because they need PPC as well." 

Felipe: I think we went down that road; we used to get a few PPC accounts and it's not our specialty. We try to avoid that because that way it ends up giving a bad experience to the client, a bad perception as well. And that spoils really good SEO work. We tend to stick with what we do. 

Deepak: Cassian is asking how difficult is it to work with a remote team and really different time zones and making sure you're on the same page strategy. You're a worldwide agency, how do you deal with the time zones?

Felipe: I wake up at 5:00 AM in the morning every day, so I start to work at half five.

Deepak: Wake up early.

Felipe: My days start at 5:00 AM in the morning and goes to about 7 or 8 pm at night, just working hours. You just have to do long shifts. I try to organize quite well, have a good “do not contact” point. You don't really need to be 100% all the time micromanaging it. I find that 30 minute calls with the team every day, it's good to get things going and then obviously a followup every week and so on. So yeah, I'd say get up early, get organized and yeah, forget about sleeping.

Deepak: Get up early, get organized, 30-minute calls, regular check-ins and that will serve you a long way. How often do you communicate with your clients? What frequency? What are the KPIs around communication?

Felipe: Well at least once a month when we send out the monthly reports. Every month we tend to send out the reports in the first week and each project manager like me, Rafa, sometimes Alex as well in the UK, we present the report to the client. We talk to them, we show the results, what was done, what's planning ahead. 

That is the time for us to get close to the clients and understand what's their pain points; if they're happy, if the work is going well.

Deepak: Guys, I think that's an excellent point which to finish off. Felipe, personally, I just want to say, first of all, thank you for that.  I hope that you'll attend the next webinar. It'll be me and Ross Tavendale in the next webinar. 

Felipe: Thank you, thank you guys. Thank you, Deepak for having me. Thanks for the invite, SEMrush, Anton and everybody and yeah, a pleasure to talk with you guys and feel free to reach out on LinkedIn with me, Twitter as well, SEO Bazon, SEO B-A-Z-O-N well.

Deepak: Thank you, everybody. Thank you SEMrush.

Felipe: Cheers guys.

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