How I Started My Own $25K/Month SEO Agency

$25,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
5
Employees
product
Cube Digital
from Dublin
started July 2015
$25,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
5
Employees
984K
alexa rank

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Leslie Gilmour and I started Cube Digital an SEO agency in 2015 - this is the second time I have started an SEO business. You may think it is easier the second time, in some ways it is. But, the second time you also know how much hard work is ahead before you will start to see results.

Our main services are SEO audits and monthly SEO packages. The packages include onsite SEO, content writing, and link building. The main aim is always business growth. We work mainly with small businesses that usually have between 10 and 50 employees.

Our turnover is around $25,000 per month, small in agency terms but we are growing fast. In 2015 I scraped by, but each year since we have grown turnover by around 50%.

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

The Accidental SEO Business

One evening in February 2006 my frustration overcame my writing ability and I tore up my latest attempt to write a novel and dumped it in the bin.

The next morning I woke thinking I should know how to build a website. I started that day learning HTML and CSS. I had studied some outdated programming languages in the 1990s so I found it fairly easy.

The year previously I had walked 500 miles across Spain on the pilgrimage known as the Camino de Santiago. So I built a website about that journey. This is us at the end of the route in 2005.

how-i-started-my-own-25k-month-seo-agency

The website was ugly and did not have great content and no one visited. I emailed everyone I knew to tell them about my great new website - still Google hated me and sent nobody.

I then started looking at the top search results for the main search term. While researching how they ranked highly I discovered SEO. That set me on my new SEO career, though I had no idea at the time.

I became obsessive about rankings and traffic, building backlinks, creating better content and by Christmas of 2006 the site ranked at number 1 for its main term. I put ads from Google on the website and actually made some money. That motivated me again to start creating other websites.

By mid 2007 I was offering SEO as a service.

My First Business

From 2007 to 2010 I worked mainly for web design companies as their in-house SEO expert. SEO worked well for these businesses and I ran training courses and found some of my own clients. It was a fun time for search optimisation as ranking in Google was easy.

A Break to Work in-house

During 2010 I received an offer to work for a sports betting company. I have little interest in sports and no interest in betting, but I could not resist the opportunity to work with much bigger budgets.

This was a roller coaster ride for the next five years. Google had decided to fight back against the tactics that were being used to rank websites. This resulted in the Panda and Penguin algorithm updates that decimated some websites. We were hit and recovered on an on-going basis.

Dealing with the intensity of ongoing algorithm updates was both disheartening and helped sharpen my skills. There were months where we ranked in the first page for ultra competitive keywords and then for months there was little traffic.

From a business and career perspective the decision to go in-house was a mistake. I focused on one niche and stopped building my own brand - I stopped writing.

Starting an Agency a Second Time

In the middle of 2015, the company I worked for suffered the final blow when their ability to bring on new customers was terminated. I was unemployed and now living in a foreign country.

I rebuilt my old business website. I still owned the domain, but it was dormant and not been updated in years. As soon as the website was presentable, about a week, I started reaching out to businesses I had worked with pre 2010.

Almost immediately, I had a couple of small budget clients, within 6 months I had my first long term larger client - they are still a client today I am happy to say.

Take us through the process of defining your services and getting the business started.

My first product was link building. Link building was where I had started in 2006, it worked in 2010 and it still works today.

I quickly added website audits, Google Adwords, on-site optimisation, and local SEO.

I knew I needed writers and hired on a per project basis from Upwork. The process for reaching out, writing and sending the finished post was the first one written. It has been reviewed many times since.

Link building is incredibly simple. You ask someone if they will publish a post, they say yes or no. That is the basics. And if you are doing this for your own website it is easy to organise. The problems start when you have 15 websites and you need 150 or 200 published posts per month. The biggest issue is keeping quality high while still being profitable.

Our process looks like this:

  1. List all competitors
  2. List main keywords in niche
  3. Scrape all the website linking to competitors
  4. Scrape Google for websites using keywords in niche
  5. Drop it all into URL profiler and pull the main stats
  6. Export the best sites to a Google sheet
  7. View each website for suitability
  8. Find the contact name and emails for each website
  9. Import all data into Buzzstream
  10. Send emails

When the process works well, the results are great. We now have five people working full time on outreach and many more contract writers. My first two hires are have now become my content and outreach managers. They are great and have continued to improve our process.

The growth has been a challenge. My background is link building and because of that I interferrered too much. I needed to learn to let go and trust others to manage.

Cash flow is different to profit. Of course everyone knows this. I knew, but the reality of it is different to the experience. My first cash flow problem happened during a period of high growth. I discovered that I needed to build up cash reserves and not spend all income on growth or production. Each new client “costs” my business two months of operating costs due to the billing cycles and when clients pay.

Describe the process of launching the business.

I didn’t need much money to start, most service business require little upfront investment. My aim during the first few months was to pay my home bills. Outside of that, I had no business plan.

I built my own website and started writing service pages and blog posts. My service pages were well targeted, but my blog posts were too technical and would only appeal to others in the industry or someone looking to solve a problem they were working on - not the right target market.

Around 80% of new clients are referrals. Every successful client brings in at least one new.

It took a while to realise that I am building a business. I am not a consultant, a freelancer or a self employed contractor. This changed the way I view myself, my work, and the clients I want to work with. I clearly saw I needed help and outsourced as much as possible. Outsourcing is a great way to learn how to hire. Both my first two hires were outsourcers I had worked with.

Biggest Lessons From The Launch

Pricing

Being cheap results in being seen as less valuable. Developing a pricing policy that undercuts the rest of the market is an incredibly hard habit to break. During the last 18 months I have had to deal with the fear of losing client when increasing prices. So far no client has left due to a price increase.

The first time I knew I had to increase a client’s price I sat with it for over a week before doing anything. Then I sat down and wrote the email. I was scared. What if they just left, what if they said my work was not good enough for that price, what if they just laughed at me? (Ah my demons)

I sent the email and there was no push back on the increase from the client.

I still instinctively think of lower quotes than the work requires with every new client. I am getting quicker at charging the right price - but The Fear is always lurking in the background.

Process

Write it down as early as possible. I had no idea my time was going to be so limited as the business grew. Like most others, I have played catch up with processes.

For example, every month I run through a Google Search Console checklist for all client’s websites. I knew what to do, I have doing doing this for a long time, but all the detail was only in my head.

I thought I could just write the checklist as I completed the checks one month. I had no idea how detailed processes were going to be. As I wrote I discovered it would take me the whole day. This process ended up being over 2,000 words and it is broken down as simply as click here, check this, add the result to the sheet.

Quality

It shows in everything I do. If answering an email, fully answer. Unfortunately I could live in my inbox all day, but that leads to lower overall satisfaction and productivity.

I am deliberately slower in answering all emails, (emergency excluded). If I answer an email fast I will likely have mails pinging back and forth. Because of this I take the time to fully answer emails, (and save the answers in canned response). Many people when they write emails/sentences do not include the subject in the sentence they write, as they take the subject of the sentence to be implied. This results in a lack of clarity and requires more work - I want to avoid that.

Doing everything right saves time and produces better results.

Too often in the digital marketing agency world cracks are papered over. Eventually these will appear. It is better to admit mistakes, errors, and sometimes admit you have no idea what happened in that last Google update. Todate, I have not been fired from an account for being direct.

Service

Set service guidelines. Without service guidelines clients can expect replies to emails within the next 10 minutes. At the same time provide great customer service as it makes a huge difference to clients perception of your work - no matter how good the results.

Great customer service is being straightforward in a professional manner. If there is a problem, let's address the problem, problems don’t just go away on their own.

I expect to reply to all client emails within 24 hours, but it is usually 6 hours. At the same time I expect replies from clients within 48 hours.

Distractions

Switch them off. I have no sounds or alerts on my computer. Icons alerts are off, no email alerts, the only thing that is allowed to flash on my screen are calls.

If I am working on an SEO audit, I will put on out of office for email and focus on the work.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

Retaining clients was imperative from the start. I look for stability - perhaps odd for a business owner.

I consider myself fortunate that my first few clients were all aiming for growth. I over delivered on each project and still do. My website brings in a small number of new clients each year.

Around 80% of new clients are referrals. Every successful client brings in at least one new. Until very recently that was our only growth plan. I read Poor Charlie's Almanack by Charlie Munger during 2016. One line that has stuck with me - “do the work that is on your desk.” For the last two and a half years there has always been work on my desk.

And today part of that work is to move some of it to someone else as quickly as possible.

We have been in business long enough now to have case studies. We promote these with ads and on social - Facebook, but mostly LinkedIn. I have built up my connections on LinkedIn to around 10,000. LinkedIn sends some traffic and new business. I aim to be on publications that attract my target customer writing about business growth - not SEO.

Below is an example of one ad. I find that ads with graphs and percentage increases have higher clicks.

how-i-started-my-own-25k-month-seo-agency

At the end of last year we created our own content marketing plan. The content is solution focused high level and less technical. Due to business being very busy at the start of the year, that did not kick off until April. We expect to see good results by the end of quarter three.

An example of a technical posts is “How to do an SEO Audit”.

Whereas posts like “List of Digital Marketing Events in Ireland” drive better more relevant traffic. Another that is in the works right now is aimed at answering questions users of Google Search Console will have. This is aimed at users who know about GSC but don’t understand the error messages. People in the last category have some knowledge. But, when they understand the full extent of the work in understanding and fixing errors have the tendency to then outsource the fixes.

My aim is to have 8 to 10 channels that refer business.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today the business is in good health. We have reasonable cash reserves along with monthly clients who are getting good results. As the business has grown the gross margin has dropped as the costs have increased. We have higher capacity than utilisation. The capacity issue was deliberate, and perhaps an optimistic over reaction to being under capacity during the last 6 months of 2018. It takes several months for a new employee to be fully trained.

I am nervous about Brexit and I see that as a current threat. I notice my appetite for investment for growth in the UK and Ireland slightly diminished. At the same time we have started to target some sectors in the US - but it is very early.

Internally there are 7 full time employees, I expect this to grow to 10 during the next year as we expand our paid ads and content offerings.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

how-i-started-my-own-25k-month-seo-agency

It’s not only results that matters. I believed that having great results for a client meant that they never leave. I now believe that all clients will leave eventually, and that is okay.

The above graph shows one of my early client’s growth over a two year period.

This is an established business that had problems with digital marketing. After 10 x’ing their growth they left. I was surprised, but the owner explained “if we can do that with only you what can we do with a bigger agency with many more people?”

Develop humility. This is easy at the start of your business. But, at some point as I gained a degree of success my ego developed. Thankfully, I have people around who told me about it. I hope it didn’t go on for too long.

I make the mistake of thinking that I am in the SEO business, when clients see me in the solution business. This is good to remember.

The last few years has felt like extended therapy. I have had to change again and again, my views, the way I work, my time management, my perception, everything. When there is a bump in the road I can usually trace it back to myself.

I highly recommend finding an experienced business coach. I started working with one early this year and it has been challenging and great. I find myself in conversations saying “I will not do that.” And then by my next session being ready to do whatever that is. Much of the coaching ends up being around my fears. Yes, fun.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

I watch around $2,000 per month being paid out for software that we all use, it is just part of the business I am in. I prefer WordPress for all websites, and some specialist shopping platforms, like Magento, for large projects.

Tools that we use everyday include:

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

“Nobody knows how to run a business until they run a business.” - The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz. This allowed me to be a bit more forgiving with myself for my many mistakes.

Tim Ferriss’ podcast helped me through the hard weeks of 2016/17. It is great to listen to others who have achieved success in their field, other by picking a path and staying with it.

The podcast that I am loving right now is from Authority Hacker. I love learning and putting into action as quickly as possible new information.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Have a plan. As they say any plan is better than no plan. I think planning is difficult because sitting down and thinking is difficult.

Develop humility. This is easy at the start of your business. But, at some point as I gained a degree of success my ego developed. Thankfully, I have people around who told me about it. I hope it didn’t go on for too long.

Slow down. Life became very busy and to overcome that I raced faster and faster through all the work. Quality suffered and my days were not happy. Slowing down helped to focus better. (Imagine not having enough time to meditate for 10 minutes - kind of crazy)

Find a group of business owners to share with, not to sell to. I started working from home and quickly moved into coworking. Shortly after that I joined my first mastermind group that consisted of 6 people who were only starting out. I met with other business owners for lunch or coffee. I knew I had a lot to learn and I was like a sponge. Just over a year ago I joined Traffic Think Tank. TTT has given me the opportunity to talk with and learn from other agency owners, it has been a tremendous help.

I joined Toastmasters. I disliked public speaking and understood it was a skill that would help.

Enjoy the journey. It can be very frustrating running your own company. Every day gives you a new opportunity to get better and learn, but sometimes it is crazy making. I have now broken my goals down from only yearly to daily, weekly, and monthly. This has allowed me to leave each day experiencing a sense of achievement. And therefore higher levels of satisfaction and happiness.

Where can we go to learn more?

Or email me [email protected]

-  
Leslie Gilmour,   Founder of Cube Digital

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