How to Start a Successful SEO Agency

The inspiration for this video came from a member of the Philippine SEO community who attended one of the conferences organized by SearchWorks.

To start, success is relative. In the case of SearchWorks, we think “successful” is a fair way to describe the agency, given its close to a decade of existence, the size of our team, and the number of clients and websites we manage relative to our size. We also serve clients across several different countries and market segments. In the Philippines, we count large conglomerates and household names as some of our loyal clients. We’ve also managed to do this while offering employees fair compensation packages that are, frankly, unheard of among local SEO agencies.

However, that does not mean that you have to share our idea of success. The beauty of starting your own business means that you can pursue your own goals and whether those are purely defined in terms of prestige, income, or personal happiness is all up to you.

While you really should watch the video above, we’ll condense the key points below. If you want to learn more about building your own SEO practice or digital marketing agency (or simply don’t understand Filipino) we’d be happy to schedule a meeting to go over it with you.

1.) Invest in Yourself

Before you even begin dreaming of starting an SEO practice, you need to develop the skills you need to set yourself apart from other SEO professionals, thus building your credibility and improving your odds of success. Don’t just go straight to asking around for clients. Chances are you’re not ready and starting too soon will result in negative client feedback, dooming your startup from the beginning.

You have to do what it takes to develop your SEO skills. Start a career as an SEO associate or find a job in a related digital marketing discipline like SEM or content creation. If you can, find a mentor who can guide you and keep you from making basic mistakes that will slow down your growth. Attend legitimate training sessions and read up on authoritative SEO blogs and resources.

Eventually, you will be ready to apply your learnings to whatever website you have responsibility over. Of course, when you do this you will eventually start comparing your output and skills to those of other people. However, at this stage, it’s important to continuously focus on improving your own skills instead of being insecure about what others are capable of. Your goal should be to develop enough confidence in your own skills to the point that you can guarantee results and successfully mentor others.

2.) Establish Your Network Ahead of Time

Before you start your agency, you have to make sure that you already have a wide enough network of professional contacts. This network will be crucial for finding your first job orders as well as the talent you need to grow your agency.

Sure, you can put your services up on places like Fiverr but the quality of the contracts as well as the effort and risks involved are unlikely to be favorable over the long term. Getting work engagements and assistance from people you know is likely to reduce your risks and increase the odds of early success considerably.

To start building your network, you have to start working in digital marketing, preferably though not necessarily as an SEO associate or specialist. If you can build a career as an SEO professional in an agency or as part of an in-house team, you will not only be able to cultivate your skills in a relatively insulated environment but you will also be able to develop your contacts within the wider digital marketing community.

You should also make sure to diversify your professional contacts as much as possible. Most SEO agencies need talented web developers, content writers, social media specialists, and other professionals who may not be as knowledgeable in SEO as you but are still vital for the business’s success. Not only will these contacts provide a potential pool of collaborators, but they may put you in touch with other clients or become clients themselves, should they also start their own businesses in the future.

By establishing solid professional relationships and not burning any bridges, you will have people who you could get in touch with for engagement inquiries or to fill key positions in your future agency. This is important, given that new agencies have to find their niche and develop their own business while also managing their clients’ online properties as well. Starting the agency with people you know and trust will remove a lot of the risk and uncertainty involved in starting up, ensuring your agency will have a good shot at surviving its turbulent early days.

3.) Commit to Building Your Own Agency

At some point, you will have to take the plunge and start building your agency for real. It’s now time to tap your pool of contacts for talent and clients. If you followed steps one and two, chances are that you will know some people who can throw a few jobs your way

Because the path ahead will be difficult, you’ll have to find deeply personal reasons for going all in and staying committed. It will be all too easy to call it quits and re-enter the SEO community as an employee, which is not a bad thing. But if you want your agency to succeed, you have to commit to its success.

4.) Continue Networking and Building Authority to Generate Qualified Leads

You will need a good reputation and professional authority if you want your agency to last. Otherwise, clients will be unlikely to choose your business over other agencies, even if you keep your rates dirt cheap, which will be a self-defeating exercise over the long term.

To build your authority, keep attending SEO conferences and consider accepting any speaking engagements that come your way. You will never know who you will make an impact on, who will want your help, and when they may want it. In some cases, you might even earn a client because you impressed them at a speaking engagement or conference that you attended years ago.

Of course, you can’t always be speaking or attending conferences. This is why you should consider blogging as a key part of your lead-generation efforts. There are thousands, perhaps millions of business owners and marketing directors out there that are unsure how to approach their SEO-related issues. If your blog compels even a few of them, they may reach out to pick your brain or start an engagement with you.

What’s more, if you know your stuff, your blog could help draw talented people to your agency. After all, good digital marketers will not want to work with you if they sense you don’t know what you’re talking about.

5.) Fanboy Marketing

Fanboy marketing essentially means that you have to make the people you work with your advocates. To do this, you have to make time for people at a personal level and make an emotional connection with them, regardless of who they are. Again, you’ll never know if the person you’re talking to now will the one to save your business if it runs into trouble years later.

“Fanboy marketing” is also worth considering because very big businesses and conglomerates generally do not google SEO agencies or use job posting sites to find SEO professionals to work with. They almost always rely on word of mouth because the risk of getting a dud when using other methods is usually too big for them to consider.

To be effective at growing your agency this way, you have to hone your presentation and speaking skills. Being comfortable in these areas will not only help you win pitches even when competing against agencies several times bigger or more prestigious than your own, but it will also help you effectively articulate your ideas, which will be important when mentoring your team and convincing potential clients in various settings.

6.) Create Video Content

Though creating quality videos is a high-effort exercise, it’s worth doing. The authority we’ve built through posting regular videos on YouTube has helped SearchWorks grow significantly in the past few years.

Video content is a powerful and uniquely rechargeable medium that allows you to strongly support arguments and create deep emotional connections. And similar to regular blog articles, your videos can serve as a lead generator that also serves to increase your authority, emotional impact, and mindshare.

Another serious benefit of video content is that it also gives you a way to outdo other established SEO agencies in channels other than Google Search. According to SEO guru Rand Fishkin, YouTube’s internal search engine is the third most used search engine in the world after fellow Alphabet properties Google Search and Google Image Search. Dominating YouTube searches with authoritative content will not only help increase your leads through that channel but will give your agency a boost on Google Search as well.

7.) Register Your Business

Though a lot of other Filipino SEO agencies have their reasons for remaining informal operations, registering SearchWorks as a formal business has been a major factor in our growth.

Being a registered, tax-paying business has given us legitimacy, which in turn has allowed us to engage with large conglomerates and other high-value clients, fueling our revenues and further increasing our authority in the Philippine SEO community. In turn, having that authority, legitimacy, and revenue stream made it possible to attract serious talent which allowed us to grow even more. Being registered also kept us from running into problems with the BIR and has allowed us to remain in continuous operation.

One unexpected benefit of keeping things legal was that it strengthened our commitment to make the agency succeed, simply because of what a pain it was to register and keep everything above board. Our professional, results-oriented, accountability-based work culture may not have come about had we not decided to be a legitimate business.

8.) Create a Suitable Workplace

While work-from-home arrangements do have benefits for both employees and employers, they make it difficult to mentor your team. This can have a serious negative impact on a new business.

While there are certainly exceptions, in our experience, a traditional office is still a better way to establish relationships and build a culture, at least in a Philippine setting. Traditional workplaces may also create a more professional mindset in many, if not most, of your employees, which will be important for keeping them focused on their jobs.

9.) Proper Accounting

Hiring a bookkeeper or accountant is a must so that you can accurately track your operating costs and pay the right taxes. However, in the case of a company with multiple shareholders like SearchWorks, proper accounting of income, liabilities, and expenses is also vital for maintaining transparency, trust, and harmony. SearchWorks would never have lasted as long as it did or grown as much as it has if the shareholders mistrusted each other.

10.) Invest in Employee Benefits and Tools

If and when you finally have a steady income stream and high-value clients knocking on your door, stop being cheap with your compensation packages and tools. When you’ve achieved a measure of stability, make it a point to invest in good hardware, software subscriptions, and top-tier health insurance.

Bean counters who argue that the productivity difference between something like a MacBook Pro and an entry-level ASUS laptop is marginal often fail to understand the intangible and long-term benefits. Not only does great gear help your employees work somewhat better but, most importantly, it also tells them that you value them.

Similarly, offering your employees generous perks such as quality health insurance, subsidies, and memorable team-building outings will make it clear that you are truly grateful for their work. In SearchWorks, we try to motivate employees by subsidizing trips overseas and these annual trips have become the highlight of everyone’s year.

When you earn your employees’ loyalty these ways, you are bound to get much more back than what you paid for those tools and benefits. In the long term, the investment in these areas will return to you in terms of better quality output, more satisfied clients, and better income.

11.) Reward the Right People and Let Go of Bad Apples

It’s worth understanding that losing top performers because you’ve intentionally kept their rewards meager will directly affect your business. Good performers are hard to find and those that do realize their worth are likely to either start their own digital marketing practice or go to other agencies that will better recognize their efforts.

It’s only right to reward exceptional people who help grow your business, even if it means giving them a direct stake in it. Not only will it help motivate them to do more but it will also help ensure their loyalty, which will be important for sustainably growing your business.

For similar reasons, you also shouldn’t hesitate to let go of dishonest people as well as those who produce poor output and have shown that they cannot be trained to perform better. Over time, these individuals are likely to cause a drop in other team members’ overall performances, resulting in lost income and a reduced ability to provide for the needs of both your clients and employees.

Mind you, this doesn’t mean that underperformers are bad people. It’s much more likely that their future lies elsewhere. In many cases, it would be more cruel to keep them from exploring new avenues to succeed than letting them go altogether.

Final Thoughts

Regardless of how you define success, building a successful SEO agency requires you to invest in your own skills, surround yourself with the right people, and continuously expand your professional network.

Of course, those are just the standard things you need to do to start an enduring business. In our case, we’ve also found that our vision of success also requires us to do more.

We’ve found that being consistently meticulous, tenacious and, most of all, generous have been key to meeting our own definitions of success. We have no doubt that consistently maintaining those qualities as an organization has been of immense help in growing SearchWorks over the past decade.

While there might be other ways to grow an agency, this has been our path to success. If you’re planning to start your own SEO agency soon, we wish you the best and hope you learned something from our example.

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