Want to Start an SEO Agency? Consider These 20 Tips from SEO Pros.
Have you been thinking about starting and SEO agency? If so, then you need to read this blog post.
Market Domination Media first started as an agency, back in 2011, and while it's since evolved into a blog as I started a different venture, it's an experience and time that I will always remember.
Back then the SEO industry was much different than it is now. But, I wish I had more guidance when I started -- it would have helped me avoid several mistakes when I first started the company.
While some mistakes and hurdles are impossible to avoid -- in any business -- sometimes hearing advice from those with experience starting a business in the same industry can help avoid some of the more common issues.
I asked several SEO professionals and agency owners to give their best piece of advice to someone looking to start an SEO agency and learn digital marketing. Their responses are below -- from how to make intelligent hiring decisions to how to generate SEO leads.
1. Focus on structure, planning and procedures.
"Most agencies start want to scale quickly. Without the right structures in place you are likely to lose work quality because as you bring team members on board and don't give them specific direction they might just do things their way. Have standard operating procedures for everything and comprehensive campaign documents. Revisit these periodically and make adjustments that improve efficiency." -- Natalie Athanasiadis, Ormi Media
2. Pick a niche and focus on it.
"Find out what kind of industry you'll enjoy working with, that values SEO, and get insanely focused with how you can help them and differentiate yourself.
Trying to sell yourself as a generalist isn't going to cut it when comes down to the most important part in the business -- the sale. You want to be able to tell your customer, with confidence, that you know you can get them results based solely on the fact that you've done it for a company just like them.
If you're afraid that the market is too small to just be good at helping one industry, think again. We started thinking smaller and our agency started to grow. We said no to working with certain industries and set qualifications. We almost only work with companies that have a proven track record of getting sales from SEO. That qualifies them for us to spend time identifying if there is even more, untapped opportunities for organic growth." -- Lance Beaudry, Avalanche Creative
3. Start with a client or two as a side-hustle and make sure they rank for key search terms.
"Prospects will always want to see examples. Establish a pattern with a few early clients on top of your full-time gig so you can show what you are capable of doing. When I started my agency, I was confronted by a hotel marketing director, questioning why my own site did not rank for 'marketing agency,' which was highly competitive at that time.
I was able to show her that one of my clients ranked very well for 'business lawyer' in our area, which was also competitive, and it showed what I was capable of." -- Stefania Sigurdson Forbes, GravityHub
4. Surround yourself with people who have already done it.
"Find people that already have a successful SEO agency, and have them mentor you.
This is something I wish I did when starting our SEO agency years ago. There’s so much that goes into running a successful business that deals with clients. Procedures, team building, sales processes and client retention are a few things I’ve had hurdles with and needed to overcome -- all of which took a lot of time and hard work.
Even if I had the experience working for another SEO company first, I would’ve had a head start. If you’re like me, this is easy advice to ignore because you may think you have original ideas and are smart enough to figure it all out. Although that may be true, getting started with a strong and proven foundation first is the best way to start and become successful in the competitive industry of SEO." -- Joe Lawlor, Digital Dynasty
5. Ensure you have the proper funding.
"If your agency is starting as a sole practitioner with little or no salary, just make sure you have six months of cash saved up for living expenses, as you will need the runway. If you plan to hire employees out of the gate, the number goes up exponentially.
For example, I founded my agency with less than $1,500 cash -- used for a laptop and business cards. The rest was self-funded organic growth. I co-founded another agency for $500 x 3 partners -- used for business cards. That company has evolved into eROI, a 90-employee, $10M revenue business (I left after the first year so I can’t take credit for the growth).
My last agency investment was in 2008, where I put in $25,000 to fund two senior employees and it was supposed to get us through the first year. We ran out of cash after three months. Another $10,000 got Formic Media through its first year, and it was cashflow positive after that. I wasn’t ready for the high investment amount, as I worked for no real salary the first year at my other two agencies, and that makes a huge difference.
Most businesses fail because they run out of cash. Amazon wasn’t profitable for its first 14 years, and now Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world. Anyone can make a business a success if they can afford to lose money for that long. Most people don’t have the cash or patient investors like Amazon had." -- Kent Lewis, Anvil Media
6. Be very specific and be very good at it.
"The best tip I can give someone starting an SEO agency would be to choose a niche -- being a service-based business, it can get really hard to scale if a company says 'Yes' to everything. The most effective method of scaling is to specialize in something and create a strong process to replicate the success for a whole industry.
For example, if a company was to specialize in local SEO they could have different packages at different price points, and a set process for each package. If you take it a step further you can choose an industry, like construction or doctors, and use the same strategies and resources for all your clients. At the end of the day an agency is all about the people and their process -- not having a niche would make creating a process almost impossible as all the clients would have different requirements and expectations." -- Ahsan Mustafa, LinkBuildingHQ
7. Develop a clear offering and a system to execute it.
"When I started, I needed business so I would take on any client I could. This ended up being impossible to scale because every client had a unique scope of work and I couldn't build out systems to fulfill the work. Now, I just focus on local SEO and have a system in place that allows me to take on as many clients as I can acquire." -- Sam Bretzmann, BretzMedia
8. Develop a partnership or an outsourced team.
"Starting an agency can be difficult but if done right, it can go well. If you're a solo show or a small group, it would be beneficial to set up a bigger team.
I'd recommend partnerships or outsourcing. This can be done locally or internationally. By focusing on your strength and specialties, you can outsource all the hard time-consuming and tedious tasks to an outsourced team. We have an out of state team on the east coast and a team in India.
We delegate tasks that way. It's productive and you save time on doing certain things. It can be outsourcing marketing, development or anything that you struggle with. You can outsource projects to partnerships and they can do the projects for you in your name. Sharing projects is a great way to build up your portfolio. This is what our company does and it's how we've been profitable and are able to take on a variety of projects, big or small." -- Newaz Chowdhury, Powerphrase
9. Join networking groups.
"In a city like Denver, I've learned that it's all about meeting as many people as possible and getting your name out there.
I've also learned that it's not only important to exchange business cards at networking events, but to have follow-up one-on-one meetings in order to get to know each other better. This is the only way to build trust and let your growing network know that they can rely on you when their name is on the line after referring you.
To give an example, I joined a networking group called BNI, where each chapter only permits one person per industry, which is designed to avoid competition and increase the number of referrals each person might receive. Since joining a month ago, I already have two referrals and am working on winning their business." -- Christina Brodzky, MediaSesh
10. Have a method or direct source for acquiring links.
Links are a huge part of what drives SEO. If you cannot provide high quality links to your clients, your SEO offerings will not take you far. It didn't take me long to discover that this is probably the most in-demand SEO service, dwarfing keyword research and on-site optimization.
Initially I made the mistake of trying to acquire links through wholesalers, but this did not get me very far with clients. Once I started reaching out directly to editors and using sources like HARO, I was able to acquire links with incredible value for clients. My advice? The sooner you establish a way to acquire quality links for clients, the better." -- Morgan Taylor, Jolly Content
11. Focus on dominating your local market.
People often try to get clients nationally when there's a lot of business to be won in their own backyard.
It's important to rank well locally, because you'll get quality leads in a market you're familiar with. When you can meet with someone face-to-face, there is a higher likelihood you'll close the deal. There is also a more realistic chance of ranking well in your own market versus nationally.
People overestimate the return on investment from social media and national SEO and overlook the local SEO play. When you can get local SEO traffic to your site, you aren't having to pay for each click, so it's a profitable way of generating new business." -- Jason Parks, Cleveland Marketing King
12. Do not assume that getting online leads will be easy because you know SEO.
When I decided to start my agency, I thought 'I know SEO -- I’ll be getting online leads in no time.' Oh, how wrong I was. Sure, being an SEO expert is helpful, but it still takes time to get to the first page of Google. Depending on the level of competition, it might take months, or even a couple of years. And, even after you rank on the first page, you will barely have any brand recognition. Without established brand you would lose most of the potential clients to other much more well-known agencies.
So, before even opening the business, figure out how you are going to be getting leads for at least the next six months. Have a business plan, marketing plan, a backup plan and a backup of a backup plan. Have your bases covered and the first couple of years of the new business will be much less painful than they stereotypically are." -- Dmitrii Kustov, Regex SEO
13. Have clear data illustrating your methodology.
"You need to set expectations for clients, as well as informing them and being agile enough to quickly adjust your approach when needed. Explain your approach to the client and explain why it is tailored to their unique needs.
There can be quite a bit of confusion around keyword selection and the efficacy of paid advertising, as well as confusion around SEO -- how well prepared a website is via its code and content for highly ranked search placement, organic discovery, and high quality backlinks.
Agencies should be prepared to help guide and educate their customers and prospective clients. They should develop an efficient method for preparing and communicating traffic stats, sources and campaign results." -- Larissa Lowthorp, TimeJump Media
14. Identify an agency you want to mirror in three to five years.
"Do you want to work with small websites or enterprise websites? Do you want to be working on e-commerce sites or media sites? Do you want to specialize in technical, local or link building and outreach? The journey will be very different depending on which you choose and if you know where you want to be be you will only take on clients that add to your experience and reputation.
It's going to be very difficult to make an impact and drive leads trying to be everything to everyone." -- Quentin Aisbett, OnQ Marketing
15. Develop and write processes down early.
"It’s very difficult once you start getting clients to have the time to go back and write down each process you need to do. These written processes will make great teaching tools later once you start scaling and hiring VAs or employees.
It also makes you much more efficient to follow a set of processes vs winging it for every client. Once you get these created, use a SaaS tool like Trello or Asana to organize and keep track of the processes completed for each project." -- Devin McHatten, Telos Digital Marketing
16. Develop a sustainable lead generation strategy.
You are going to need to develop a steady flow of leads to ensure your agency has the grow and remain in business. One of the best sources of more leads is, as Charlie Munger says, 'by looking after the work on your desk.' If you look after your clients you should have a steady source of referrals from which you can rely upon.
This is how I have built up our clientele -- by creating case studies based on current clients work to demonstrate to prospective clients that I have generated concrete results within their specific niche. A great strategy which has worked for me is to have your case study published in your target niches trade magazine as either an advertorial or a guest article if allowed.
This then positions you as an expert and authority within your target niche and demonstrates that you have a proven track record of success. This is a lesser known strategy which can produce powerful results and allows you to to reach your target audience without coming across as 'salesy' and allows you to command higher rates as you have positioned yourself as the authority on digital marketing in your desired niche." -- Matthew Woodley, Woodley Digital Marketing
17. Make your niche as narrow as possible.
The specific niche you select would likely reflect where you are based and competition in that niche. An example would be targeting photographers -- but a specific type of photographer, like wedding photographers. You can then fine-tune your messaging and advertising to reach and talk to a very specific audience.
There are many reasons why this is the right way to start a new business. SEO is a very broad category. So it is hard to be good at all of it. By focusing on a specific type of business you can more easily develop competence. This competence allows you to provide a great service. Possibly more important than the operational aspects is the marketing. It is hard to stand out if you provide everything SEO for every type of business. Your marketing message will be broad and weak. Your market will be broad and unfocused. That's a recipe for disaster.
This is not anything new. Most marketing frameworks or textbooks will detail the power of niching-down. However, most new business owners think that the more that they offer the more potential customers they can attract. This is wrong.
Target a niche. Become an expert in that niche. You can then command greater fees and more easily demonstrate competence. You can also laser in on your target audience and provide highly relevant messaging in your ads making it easier to generate leads and new business. Experience in a given field makes closing those leads far easier as well. There is not an element of your business that niching-down does not improve -- marketing, sales and operations all benefit." -- Marcus Miller, Bowler Hat
18. Start small and slowly move up to larger clients.
"Try starting local. Every establishment you go to -- let them know you do SEO and offer them free advice. Slowly build up to a paid contract. When I started, I told every restaurant owner that I did marketing and told them what was wrong with their website. I gained their trust and gained some paid contracts in the process.
Upwork is amazing for starting out. You can easily land contracts in the $500 to $4,000 per month range. I didn’t do this myself, but I have a lot of contacts who started this way. They built their profile up with smaller contracts and eventually landed larger contracts on Upwork.
Once you build up your portfolio and name, you can slowly move towards larger clients and contracts." -- Darwin Liu, X Agency
19. Make hiring an office manager or assistant a priority.
You need to shift from working IN your business to working ON your business as quickly as cash allows.
This is a huge mistake I made. We had six or seven employees before I finally realized I shouldn't be doing the bookkeeping, payroll, ordering the coffee and any of the other countless little jobs that needed to be done. Instead of planning, selling, and managing, I was pushing buttons and flipping levers that didn't make us money -- it kept the doors open and kept others working, but none of it grew our business.
I hired our first office manager and my assistant, spent about two months training her and having her document everything we were going over for the next office manager, and then suddenly I was free to work ON the business and grow it. I should have made that decision years earlier and several employee seats earlier -- we would have spent those years growing rather than me making sure the electric bill was paid." -- Rod Holmes, Pilot Digital Marketing
20. Find great business partners.
"SEO is only one small facet of the larger digital marketing world. Many agencies have a particular niche or speciality when it comes to services they provide. If you partner with one or more agencies who don't have SEO nailed down you may be able to provide the SEO expertise they need to up-sell their clients or improve on the efforts they are already making.
Getting a stable cash flow and new clients is a challenge especially early in the business. Selecting a partner or two gives you predictability and avoids the sales sequence of signing up new clients independently. This can give you a great advantage early on, helping to establish an income base and work for your new agency." -- Chase Anderson, Lepton Marketing