Had enough of the day job?
A common new years resolution is “quit the rat race and be your own boss”. In this article we’ll take a look at what is involved in starting up your own search marketing business, the opportunities you could grab, and the pitfalls you should avoid.
But first , why are people leaving SEO?
Is SEO Dead?
There’s no question Google makes life difficult for SEOs. Between rolling Pandas, Top Heavies, Penquins, Pirates, EMDs and whatever updates and filters they come up with next, the job of the SEO isn’t easy. SEO is a fast moving, challenging environment.
In the face of such challenges, many SEOs have given up and moved on. Here’s a rather eloquent take on some reasons why.
It’s true that SEO isn’t as easy as it once was. You used to be able to follow a script: incorporate this title tag, put this keyword on your page, repeat it a few times, get links with the keyword in the link text, get even more links with keywords in the link text, and when you’ve finished doing that - get a lot more links with keywords in the link text.
A top ten position was likely yours!
Try that script in 2013, and.....your mileage may vary.
There are plenty of examples of sites that follow Google’s exhaustive rules and get absolutely nowhere.
But let’s say you’ve figured out how to rank well. Your skills are valuable, because top ten rankings are valuable. Another bonus, given Google is making life more difficult, is that it creates a barrier to entry. There will be less threat from newcomers who have just bought a book on How To SEO.
For those with the skills, the outlook remains positive.
Many in the industry are reporting skills shortages:
We do struggle to fill some of our positions, with SEO being a particularly tough one to find good people that have relevant experience,” said Chris Johnson, CEO of Terralever in Tempe.
Consultants in SEO and marketing in general have seen a huge uptick in job openings in the past few years. An October study by CNNMoney and PayScale.com place marketing consultants, which include SEO specialists, as the second-best positions in the U.S. based on pay and industry growth. According to the survey, they comprise more than 282,000 jobs with a 41.2 percent growth rate over the past 10 years.
SEMPOs 2012 report projects the search industry to grow to 26.8 billion in 2013, up from 22.9 billion in 2011.
So, the demand is escalating, SEO/SEM is getting more challenging, yet more people than ever seem to be throwing in the towel.
The nature of SEO is changing. Trends for 2013 - which are also highlighted in the SEMPO report - show that whilst lead generation and traffic acquisition are still favoured, areas such as brand awareness and reputation management are on the rise:
Survey responses show a drop in the blunt objective of driving traffic, but it remains a key goal for search engine optimization (SEO). Perhaps more interesting is the doubled number of agencies citing brand/reputation as a goal, up from 5% in 2011 to over 11% in this year's survey
These might be niche areas worth exploring.
One sad trend is that the small business owner is being squeezed out. SEO used to be a way for small business to out-compete big brands, but that door is being closed.
What can we learn from all this?
SEO for the larger businesses appears to be where the game is moving. The advantages of business scale and brand reputation in the search engine results pages are not to be underestimated.
The SEO approach for smaller businesses needs to be about a lot more than just SEO, it needs to be more about SEM - with strong emphasis on the “M” (arketing) in order to avoid the fate outlined in the link above. Google looks deficient if people can’t find the big brand names, but few will notice if a small, generic operator falls out of the index as another relative unknown will take their place.
Of course, gaps in the algorithms will always exist, and this is the territory of aggressive SEO, but this is getting increasingly difficult to apply to legitimate sites that can’t afford to burn and replace sites.
The SEO these days needs to think about the fundamental value that SEO has always delivered - qualified prospects, leads, and positioning in the buyers minds. That might mean approaching what was once a technical exercise from a more holistic marketing angle.
Why Work In Search?
Search remains a very interesting business.
John Wanamaker, a merchant in the 1860’s was quoted as saying “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half!”. I think he would have liked the search marketing business, as it allows you to do three very important things: get inside the mind of the customer, only talk to the people who are interested in what you offer and track what they do next.
Using search, you know where 100% of your budget is going. It won’t be wasted so long as you target correctly. Targeting is what search marketing does so well. If you enjoy figuring out what people want, matching them up with a page that allows them to do that thing, and beat your competition at doing so, then search marketing is a good game to be in. Whether you do that using SEO, PPC, social media, or likely a mix of all three, the demand for qualified visitors will always exist.
The next question is whether you want to do it for someone else, or do it for yourself. There are obviously pluses and minuses for both options, so let’s compare them.
Work For Someone Else Or Work For yourself?
Some people feel frustrated working for someone else and not being the master of your own destiny, especially if the boss is an idiot. Then again, some people like the routine and predictability of working for others, and they might be lucky enough to have a great boss who nurtures and respects them.
So, what type of person are you?
If you like a regular routine, regular hours, and task specialization, then looking for a SEM job within an established search marketing firm might be the way to go. If you prefer a high degree of control, variety and the knowledge that all the rewards will flow to you for the successful work you undertake, then starting your own business might be a good way forward.
Only you know for sure, but it pays to spend a bit of time taking a good look at yourself, your existing skills and what you really like doing before you decide if “working for someone else” or “working for yourself” is the right answer.
You should also establish your goals.
Be specific. If your reward is monetary, set a measurable goal i.e. I want to make $X per month in the first year, $X per month in the second, and $X per month in the third. Being specific about measurable goals will help you construct a viable business plan, which I’ll cover shortly.
Your goals need not be monetary. It could be argued the greatest rewards from a job or business aren't monetary reward, but the satisfaction you derive from the work.
When it comes to working for yourself, it’s hard to underestimate the freedom of picking your own areas of working to your own timetable. These are real benefits. If your goals align more closely with a job i.e. a regular income and a regular time schedule, then you might decide that getting a job with an employer will suit you best. If you value autonomy, then running your own business might suit you better.
Split your goals into short term, medium term and long term. Where do you see yourself in five years time? How about this time next year? In the case of search marketing, who knows if it will be around in five years time, and if so, in what form?
Your one year plan might be focused on SEO, but your five year plan might be to provide the very same things SEO provides today - qualified visitor traffic - no matter what form the source of that traffic will take in five years time. The value proposition to the client, will be much the same. So, your five year plan might include learning about general marketing concepts and studying new digital marketing channels as they arise.
Being clear about what you like doing and your objectives will make your decision about whether to get a job or strike out on your own much easier.
Another way to think about it is to consider doing search marketing part time, at first. It may prove to be a lucrative second income if you already have a job. One of the biggest factors in running your own business is the risk, and having a steady income reduces this risk significantly. It also means you can start slow and build up without the pressure of having to hit regular targets. The disadvantage is that you don’t have as much time to devote to it, and working two jobs might tire you out to the point you’re not doing both well. You’re also unlikely to be available to clients during business hours when they need you.
Of course, be careful not to compete with your existing employer and check out the non-compete clauses in your contract.
Another thing to think about if you're cash rich but time poor, especially with many people leaving the SEO game, is to buy an existing SEO business. You’re buying existing contracts and/or a client list, and you may be able to pick up some skilled employees, too. Buying a business is a topic in itself and outside the scope of this article, however it’s an avenue to think about especially if you are capital rich and time poor. You may be able to manage such a business part time, as you have less pressure to develop new business from scratch and the existing employees can handle the work at the coal face and deal with clients during the day.
Few business plans ever survive contact with the real world as the real world is constantly moving.
But this doesn't mean you shouldn't write one.
It’s essential to have a plan, just as you need directions to get to a travel destination. You could wing it without a map, and you might arrive in your destination, but chances are you won’t. You’ll most likely get lost. A business plan helps you assess where you are, and remind you where you’re going.
Having said that, a business plan is always subject to change, because as you encounter the real world - the rapidly fluctuating market - you will start to see opportunities and pitfalls you could never see whilst you were creating an abstract plan in your head. The plan needs to change with you, not lock you into a rigid framework. Treat it as a living document subject to change.
Entire books have been written about business plans, but unless you’re chasing bank financing and/or need to present formally to an external agency, it pays to keep business plans brief, clear and simple.
Crafting a business plan also enforces an intellectual rigour that will help test and challenge your ideas. In crafting your business plan, various questions will occur to you. How many clients do you need to get in order to meet your financial goals? How many staff members can you afford based on those goals? If you allocate all your time to existing clients, how will have time to acquire new clients? Do you have a marketing budget to get new clients?
These type of questions are addressed by the business plan.
A typical business plan covers the following:
- Business Concept - describes what the business will do, discusses the search marketing industry in general, and shows how you’ll make the business work.
- The Market - identifies your likely customers, and your competitors. Explains how you’ll get these customers, and how you’ll beat the existing competition.
- Finances - shows how much it will cost to do what you plan to do, and how much money you plan to make from doing it.
Break these sections down as follows:
What is your current position? What is your background? What is the purpose of your business? What is your competitive advantage? Who are your competitors? How will you exploit their weaknesses, and counter their strengths? How will you increase capability and capacity? How do you plan to grow?
Identify your target market and show how you will reach them. Describe what your search marketing service will do and highlight any areas where you have a clear advantage over competitors.
2. Business Strategy
Define the market you’re targeting. How big is it? What are the growth prospects? What is the market potential? How does your business fit into this market? What are your sales goals? What is your unique selling proposition?
Be specific about your objectives and goals i.e. make $x profit in the first year, as opposed to “be profitable”. They must be measurable, so you can see exactly how you’re doing.
Outline your pricing strategy. Here are a few ideas on how to price without engaging in a race to the bottom. Outline how you’re going to sell. What sort of advertising and marketing will you do? Outline your core values. What do you believe? What are your principles? Outline the factors most critical to your success. What are the things you must do in order to succeed?
Prepare a brief SWOT analysis. It sounds convoluted, but SWOT simply means strengths, Weaknesses,Opportunities, and Threats in terms of marketing.
Include any Market research you have done. Outline your distribution channels. Outline any strategic alliances you have. Outline your promotion plan. Prepare a Marketing budget. How will you appear credible in the eyes of your target market?
4. Management Structure
Who is involved and what are their skills? Do you plan to hire more staff? At what milestones? What plans do you have for training and retention? You need not solve this problem in house, of course. Your plan could involve using contractors as and when required.
Who are your advisors? i.e. your accountant, lawyer, mentor and financial planner, if applicable. This section is especially important if you’re seeking financing as banks will want to see that you’re operating with professional guidance.
Describe any staff management systems you plan to implement.
5. Financial Budgets And Forecasts
Ideally, you should include:
These can be hard to estimate, so calculate a best case scenario, a worst case scenario, and something in the middle. This gives you a range to think about, and how you might deal with various outcomes should they arise.
Cashflow is by far the most important consideration. You can have customers lined up, they are buying what you have, they are placing more orders, but if you can’t meet your bills, then your business will crash. Consider what line of credit you may need in order to maintain cashflow.
Restate the main aspects of your plan, highlighting where you are now and where you’re going to take the business. As business plans are always up for review, make a note of when you’ll review it next.
You might think a business plan is tedious and not worth the effort. However, it can save you a lot of time, effort and money if it shows you that your business won’t fly. It’s great to model a business on paper before you sink real money into it as there is no risk at this point, yet it will be clear from the business plan if the business has a chance of making money and growing. If the numbers don’t add up on the plan, they won’t do so in real life, either.
Your good name.
It’s worth spending time and possibly money investing in a great name as you’ll likely live and breathe it for the lifetime of the business
What do you want people to think of when they think of your company? Your name must create an immediate impression.
One of the problems with a crowded industry, like search marketing, is that generic, descriptive names won’t stand out. “Search Marketing Agency” may describe what you do, but such a name makes it difficult to differentiate yourself. A quirky name, like “RedFrog”, make be memorable, but may do little to convey what you’re about.
You'll also need a name that doesn't stomp on anyone else's registered trademark, else you’ll likely get into legal trouble. It also helps if the exact match domain name is available. If you get stuck, there are plenty of branding experts who can help you out, although they do tend to be expensive.
Keep in mind that is easy to rank for a unique brand name. If it’s unique, it tends to be memorable. So my two cents for anyone in a crowded industry is to go for the unique over the generic and descriptive. You can also tack on a byline to the end of your name to remove any uncertainty.
And get a great logo! Check out 99designs. Keep in mind that a logo should work for both on-screen color display and print, which might be in black and white.
Search Business Models
There are a few different search marketing models on which to base a business.
Perhaps the most obvious search marketing model is that of the consultant whereby you help other businesses with their search marketing efforts. Think about the demand for external consultants and where that demand may come from.
Large companies tend to want to deal with large agencies. Large companies may have their own internal search team. There comes a point where it is cheaper to hire someone full time that hire an external consultant, and that point is the average full time salary plus employment costs.
Larger companies will hire one-man bands or small consultancies if they need what you have and what you have is difficult for them to get elsewhere. A lot of search marketing consultants won’t fill this brief, although some are brought in to help train and mentor their internal search teams.
A lot of the demand for external consultants comes from smaller businesses who don’t have the expertise in house and their low level usage of search marketing wouldn't make it financially viable.
One of the great upsides of the consultancy model is you get to see how other people run their businesses.
The affiliate positions a site in the top ten results, gathers leads and traffic, and then sells them to someone else. The display advertiser publishes content in order to provide space for advertising, and typically makes money on the click-thrus.
Keep in mind that the competition can be fierce as any lucrative niche will likely already have many competitors. Also keep in mind that Google is likely gunning for you, as there have been clampdowns on thin-affiliates in recent years i.e. affiliates who don’t provide a great deal of unique and useful content.
The downside is that unless you’re diversified, your income could dry up overnight if Google decides to flick their tail in your direction. And to be truly diversified, you need diversification across markets AND strategies. Without that, there is a good chance you’ll then have to start from scratch at some point. Algorithm shifts tend to be great for consultants with deeper levels of client engagement, as the change can create new demand for their consultancy services. For consultants who sell low margin consulting across a large number of clients, the algorithmic updates can actually be worse than they are for affiliates, because you may suddenly have a lot of angry customers all at once & unlike an affiliate who prioritizes a couple key projects while ignoring many others, it is not practical to ignore most clients when things go astray. To each & every client their project is the most important thing you are working on, & rightfully so.
Some search marketers mix up their affiliate with consulting to even out the risk, provide greater variety, and deal with the inevitable slack that comes with many consulting-based business models.
There is a huge community of search professionals. They need software tools, data, advice and other services. Obviously, SEOBook follows a hybrid of this model. We provide premium tools, while also engaging in consulting through our community forums. Those who don't value their time are not a good fit. But those who do value their time can get a lot out of the community in short order, without the noise that dominates so many other forums. The barrier to entry is a feature which guarantees that the members are either a) already successful, or b) deeply understand the value of SEO, which in turn increases the level of discourse.
Think about areas that are a pain for you in your current search marketing work. These areas are likely a pain for other people, too. If you can make these pain points easier, then that is worth money. The search community tends to be generous about getting the word out when truly useful tools and services spring up. The hard part is when more service providers enter a niche it becomes harder to maintain a sustained advantage in your feature set. As that happens, you need to focus on points of differentiation in your marketing strategy.
A lot of SEOs/SEMs do a mix of work.
PPC and SEO fit quite nicely together. It’s all search traffic. The skills are pretty similar in terms of choosing keywords and tracking performance. They differ in terms of technical execution.
Affiliate and display advertising can balance out client work, providing income from a variety of different sources, which lowers risk.
The main benefit of an integrated model is you get to see a lot of different areas. Many people in the search industry talk the talk, but if their primary purpose is to sell, they're less likely to have the chops. If you’ve got your own sites, and you win/lose based on how well they do, then you’ll likely have an understanding of algorithms that a lot of sales-oriented talking heads will never have. The downside is that you might spread yourself too thin over a number of projects, and thus become a master of none.
Clearly Defined Niche
The trick with any of these approaches is to find a niche, preferably one that is growing quickly. Okay, the SEO consultant market is swamped due to low barriers to entry, but perhaps the SEO provider market in your home town isn't.
Perhaps there are web design companies who can’t afford a full time SEO, but would like to offer the service to their clients. Get three or four of these agencies as “clients” and you’ll likely create one full time job for yourself. This is a particularly good model if you don’t like sales, or don’t have time to do a lot of sales work. The design agency will do the selling for you, and they already have a customer base to whom they can sell.
Design agencies often like such arrangements because they get to add an additional service without having the overhead of another staff member. They also get to click the ticket on your services. Your billing is also more streamlined, as you’re likely be billing the agency itself.
Be very specific when choosing a niche. Who would you really like to work for? What, specifically, would you really like to do? “Search marketing” is perhaps a too wide of a niche these days, but how about exclusive search marketing for tourism businesses?
It doesn't pay to try and be all things to all people, especially when you’re a small operation. In fact, the advantage of being small is that you can target very specific areas that aren't viable for bigger marketing companies who run high overheads. Consider your own interests and hobbies and see if there’s a fit. Do companies in your area of interest do their search marketing well? If not, you've got a huge advantage pitching to them as you already speak their language.
Keep the customer firmly in mind. What problem do they have that they desperately need solving? Perhaps the restaurant doesn't really need their website ranking well, but they do need more people phoning up and making a reservation. So how about running a restaurant reservation site in your town, using SEO and PPC to drive leads, providing customers copies of each restaurant's menu? Charge the restaurant for placement and/or on leads delivered basis.
Trip Advisor started with a similar idea.
Doing The Deals
One of the biggest transitions from a regular job to running your own business, if you’re not used to working in sales, is that you will need to negotiate deals. Those working 9-5, especially in technical roles, don’t tend to negotiate directly, at least not with prospective clients and suppliers.
Negotiation is a game. The buyer is trying to get the best price out of you, and you’re trying to land more business.
Possibly the single most important thing to understand about negotiating is that negotiations should be win-win ie. both sides need to get something out of it and not feel cheated. This is especially important in search marketing consulting as you’ll be working with your clients over a period of time and you need them on your side in order to make the changes necessary.
It’s easy to assume the buyer has all the power, but this isn’t true. If they’re talking to you, they have already indicated they want what you have. You are offering something that grows their business.
However, you need to understand your relative positions in order to negotiate well. If you’re offering a generic search marketing service and there are ten other similar providers bidding for the job, then your position is likely very weak unless you’re the preferred supplier. Personally, I’d avoid any bidding situation where I’m not the preferred supplier.
This is where niche identification is important. If you have clearly identified a niche in which there isn’t a great deal of competition, you have a clearly articulated unique selling point and you know what buyers want, then your position in negotiation is stronger. This is why it’s important to have addressed these aspects in your business plan. Failure to do so means you’re very vulnerable on price, because if you’re up against very similar competitors, then your last resort is to undercut them.
Price cutting is not the way to run a sustainable business, unless you’re operating a WalMart style model at scale.
You need to set a clear bottom line and walk away if you don’t get it. This can be very difficult to do, especially if you’re just starting out. The exception is if you’re simply trying to get a few names and references on your books, and don’t care so much about the price at this point. In this case, you should always price high but say you’re offering a special discount at this point in time. Failure to do so means they’ll just perceive you as being cheap all the time.
Start any negotiation by letting the customer state what they want. then you state what you want. If you both agree, great! Win-win. Chances are, however, you’ll agree on some points, and disagree on others. Fine. Those points you agree on are put off to one side, and you’re focus on trying to find win-win positions on the points you disagree with. Keep going until you find a package that both meets you needs.
Starting your own business is a thrill. It’s liberating. However, in order for it to work, you must approach it with the same rigor and planning you do with your search marketing campaigns. Keep in mind you’re swapping one boss for many bosses.
Perhaps the best piece of advice is to dive in. A lot about running your own business isn’t knowable until you do it. so if one of your new years resolutions was to quit the day job and strike out on your own, then go for it!
Best of luck, and I hope this article has given you a few useful ideas:)
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