These days there are loads of SEO agencies out there. And while many of them are subpar, there are still plenty that were founded by people who know what they’re doing and deliver great value to their clients. For agencies like this, we wanted to know the following:
- Why they started
- How they were able to attract clients and built it up
- Tips/advice for people contemplating starting their own agency
By collecting as many stories as we can, we hope to provide a useful resource here for people thinking about starting an SEO agency. Already, I’ve collected 19 great submissions that were submitted to me, and there’s definitely a lot here that should be of great interest to you. 🙂
To put this together, I’ve done a significant amount of outreach to different SEO’s and put this query out on the journalism sites I belong to:
For people who currently run an SEO agency, we’d like to hear your story. Why did you start an SEO agency, what’s your experience been like, have you been able to build it up to a reasonable level and what tips/advice can you share?
Also, if you run an SEO agency yourself, you can also make a submission here and we’ll add it to the article. We’d like to hear from owners of ESTABLISHED SEO agencies that have been around for a few years and have a strong track record, and who can share some genuinely useful input.
RELATED: See also our collection of SEO tips for 2020 (over 100 submissions from different SEO’s) on what you should pay attention to when doing SEO in 2020.
When I first entered the industry, social media was "in" and "seo" was treated as if it was snake oil. I thought that it was interesting and if there was smoke, there must be fire somewhere. I poured myself into learning about SEO and came across Brian Dean’s Backlinko course that inspired me to try SEO tactics for the initial agency. We quickly ranked for our target keywords and were able to inbound several top-tier companies and prospects that came to our site and hired us. With my next agency, I took the same approach, working on building content and backlinks to rank for my target keywords to attract new business.
Here are a few tips I think are important for any SEO agency to be on a path to success:
1. Practice what you preach. The best way to sell SEO services (In my opinion) is to rank in top positions for your intended keyword set as an agency. By demonstrating that you yourself rank, it greatly helps build trust with your client that you can do the work.
2. Create an audit process that adds value - yes, you absolutely want to sell your services and create revenue, and I encourage all agency owners to think of how to offer value on that first call so you can work on building that relationship.
3. Be open and focus on education. Often times, I find clients want to work with someone that has an expertise but are also curious about the process. The more education you can provide, the more you’ll build a relationship and trust for that client to work with you.
--Aalap Shah, 1o8
Why did you start an SEO agency? > I co-founded my first agency in January 1999, after my former boss invited me to join him in a new agency venture where I could build my own (SEO) team any way I wanted. By August 2000, we were 35 employees and $3.5M in revenue, but the economy was falling apart and my relationship with my mentor/boss was strained and we parted ways. I immediately founded Anvil Media in October 2000 so I could do consulting projects, but wasn't ready to hire full-time employees until fall 2003 (I'd co-founded an email marketing agency in mid-2002 and backed away from my President role to run Anvil full-time, as I determined search was my true passion).
What's your experience been like? > It's been a wild ride! The early days (1996-2003) was a blast... mostly client education, but it was the Wild West and the upside was big. The second wave was most lucrative (2004-2012) where clients and employees reached critical mass and momentum, and we were a well-established brand at that point. The third wave (2013-present) has been a slog. Too many competitors, fickle clients and employees makes the SEO agency world challenging, and all for less profit.
Have you been able to build it up to a reasonable level? > I've built Anvil to specification: fewer than 16 employees, as it was never fun for me at firms larger than that number. We've averaged a 12-14 employees the last 10 years and it seems to be the sweet spot. It's more like an elite team than a family, but it works well.
What tips/advice can you share? > Work ON the business, not just IN the business. Hire for talent/strengths and values alignment vs. experience/knowledge. It's a marathon, not a sprint, so plan accordingly.
--Kent Lewis, Anvil Media
I started our SEO agency because it was one of the most valuable forms of digital marketing to enter when starting out. The value is in the barrier to entry. It's easy and cheap to learn, but it is hard to master. For a while I was a one-man shop agency doing everything from sales to service. For a while, we struggled to scale from just barely breaking 6 figure years to 6 figure quarters. The reason we are continuously growing is because we can get the results our clients are looking for out of SEO. You can't just offer it as a service and not validate that you are contributing to a company's growth. Once we started focusing on being the best source of new leads for our clients and then achieved that, we started to understand our value better and have much better case studies to present new clients.
Focus on results for one customer at a time and you'll start to scale.
--Lance Beaudry, Avalanche Creative
I've run a digital agency for seven years now and fell into it by accident. My story involves becoming an iOS app developer first.
I hated my accounting job so much out of college and would do anything to get out. I had read a book recommended by Tim Ferris called App Empire, which was an instruction guide on how to build an app business. Once I developed the app, I needed a cheap way to market it and decided to pick up SEO. When I was able to make my app (Game Up Alarm Clock), the number 12 utility app in the US, and top 5 globally, I knew I was good at SEO.
Why I started an Agency
To be 100% transparent, I first started my agency because I was broke and had nothing to sell. It wasn't until I began working with multiple clients, the joy that comes with helping other business owners exceed what they've done in the past.
I would say that the experience has been tough but rewarding. Tough in the sense that there are a ton of shady practitioners, which means I often start in a hole when it comes to trust. It's rewarding because seeing the results and gaining the trust of your clients is a fantastic feeling. I have one client who had to upsize their office to hire more salespeople.
Reasonable Level and Advice
I've gone from working with local companies to working with private equity-backed companies who have more budget. My advice is, be honest and explain plainly what you're doing. You'll be shocked how often you'll hear, I've never had an SEO so upfront with me. That's how trust is built, and clients are won for life.
--Joseph Babi, Joseph Paul Digital Agency
I come from a client side SEO background and have worked with a couple of large e-Commerce brands as an in-house, go-to guy for on-site SEO work. I oversaw the day-to-day on-site SEO operations of the business. For larger projects and roll-outs, we would contract external SEO agencies for implementation and off-site work. These were significant accounts that were worth in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Working client-side taught me some really valuable lessons about how other SEO agencies operate. Most importantly, it showed that there is a huge difference between good SEO companies and bad SEO companies. Out of the three companies that we worked with; one was good - the other two were hopeless.
If you know the episode of the Simpsons where Marge decides to teach piano and says; “I’ve just got to stay one lesson ahead of the student”, that’s exactly what working with an overstretched external SEO agency felt like. It was clear that they were juggling a lot of clients. Everything was reactive and they were just trying to scrape by and do enough to earn their monthly retainer.
After freelancing and consulting for a few years, I bit the bullet at the end 2018 and started Safari Digital SEO Agency. Over the last 18-months, we’ve gone from 3-4 clients, to the point where we’re managing 15-20 accounts at any time. The biggest lesson has been that communication is essential. SEO takes time, which means that you need to be transparent with clients about what you’re doing and how long things are taking. We are extremely upfront about the patience and trust needed for a successful SEO campaign. If a potential client needs a rock-solid SEO timeline of when they’ll be ranking #1 for a certain keyword, we’ll usually point them towards an AdWords agency. Honesty is everything – be as transparent as possible about the process and make sure the client understands the time and patience needed.
--Liam Ridings, Safari Digital SEO Agency
Why I started
I saw the sad demise of the high street, and the painful irony about the situation, was that many small businesses had zero grasp on Digital Marketing and didn't know how to stand out online to compete.
I saw there was clearly a gap in knowledge, so I started my agency to help promote small businesses so they could stand up for their own bricks and mortar.
My experience (honestly)
In two words, unrealistic expectations.
Many small businesses have incredibly small budgets and don't appreciate the time SEO takes to really implement and show results. The hardest job is to manage their expectations about results and budget. Having said this, once you start yielding results, they are your biggest advocates.
Tips / Tricks
There is so much free resource out there. To name a few, Neil Patel, Brian Dean, Hike.io, Semrush, not to mention all the free chrome extensions.
Go out there and utilise all the free resources that are available. SEO is a massive topic and will always be changing, and as a result there are always people talking about it, and sharing their expertise.
For an agency to do well, my tips are to always manage the expectations of your clients (without over promising). They only see 'no.1 spot' as a holy grail, but never appreciate the work that goes into it.
Sometimes, it needs to be said what steps and how long.
--Will Goodwin, Social Solutions Digital Marketing Agency
I was working at a small marketing agency as their sole SEO & Facebook advertising consultant. A few weeks into the job, it became apparent the owner had next to no idea on anything digital. I didn’t think much more at the time, however, it came back to bite me when 6 months later I was let go from the job because the company had lost 2 key clients.
It was only in the following weeks that I realised that it wasn’t my fault, the owner was the one talking to the clients, if they had ZERO concept of what I was doing how could I expect the client to understand. The decision to start my own company was made in the weeks after this experience. If a marketing agency with zero idea on digital can get SEO clients, well why couldn’t I?
Starting an agency from nothing is not easy, it takes time to build trust and authority within your market/region. I spent many early weeks trying giving away knowledge, guidance to anyone that needed it, trying to build my local business networks. Within 6 months we had enough SEO clients on board to hire a staff member. That was 3 years ago now, since then we have established ourselves as one of the top SEO agencies in our region.
--Brogan Renshaw, Firewire Digital
Why Did You Start an SEO Agency?
I started an SEO agency due to my existing experience with SEO and the ever-expanding potential of internet marketing.
What's Your Experience Been Like?
My experience has been full of ups and downs, primarily ups, thankfully. As with any new business, there were lots of moments where we learned along the way and now apply that valuable knowledge to our current processes.
Have You Been Able to Build It Up to a Reasonable Level?
Yes, we've been able to build it up to where it's ranking #1 consistently within the Austin, Texas area for SEO-related queries and we also have a strong presence within The Netherlands where some of our team is based.
What Tips/Advice Can You Share?
The best tip or piece of advice I can give anyone who is feeling inspired to start their own SEO agency is to treat your website as if it's your highest-paying client. If you're able to rank your own site for valuable keywords which provide you a consistent amount of organic leads, you'll do just fine. It's also a great selling point to be able to say Would you like to see how SEO works? Type in [search query related to your SEO agency website] and see where we rank. If you're in the top few positions, it'll automatically show potential clients you know what you're doing when it comes to SEO.
--Christopher Grozdon, DASH-SEO
I started my SEO agency 5 years ago. The previous agency, for which I worked, had been sold and I was getting more and more disappointed in the direction it was taking. They took a custom, boutique SEO agency and started to take away everything that made the old agency great- including the clients' results. As they started taking on more and more questionable clients, it was clear that it was time for me to move on.
Sometimes agencies that want to grow have to do so at the expense of the quality of their work. They always seem to be chasing the balance between bringing on new clients to pay for the additional staff for which they need to bring on even more clients, etc. It's an endless loop. Pretty soon the quality of the clients declines, as they have to take anyone they can- whether or not they can really help them. This also means the quality of the work goes down, as they have to hire people with less experience. I've seen this result in two different problems: either they have to sell more clients than they lose each month (meaning their focus is on sales rather than results that help clients) or they only do work for the clients who are complaining because they don't have the bandwidth to help all their clients at the same time..
When I started my agency, I resolved to avoid these problems. The goal: limit my own size. Within 6 months I had all the clients I could take, and didn't attempt to grow any more. This allowed me to focus on those clients' results rather than focus on where I was getting my own, next client. As a result, most clients stay with me for years.
This is one of the reasons I named my agency, Reliable Acorn. There are a lot of unreliable SEO companies out there. Many are unreliable because they're pursuing their own sales over their clients' results. I wanted to establish that my focus was on being reliable for my clients and, as a result, grow their company- like an acorn grows into a great oak.
--David Zimmerman, Reliable Acorn LLC
I started my own digital marketing company in 2015. Of course, SEO is always a big part of digital marketing. The reason behind starting my own SEO agency was that during my career as a marketer, I could see the potential SEO had in a world that was increasingly going online. What I understood was that in order to hook in the new customers and build a sustainable business- it was imperative that your website is more visible on the internet. And for that SEO was inevitable. However, I could also see that companies were not following a holistic SEO policy, and going for piecemeal approaches which neither got them the desired results, nor helped them manage their budgets efficiently. I had faith in the solutions I was proposing- and I could see that they were wielding results. So, I wanted to strike out on my own and help my clients on my terms.
The journey has been rewarding. I have had the opportunity to work with a number of brands- even international ones, and each project has helped me hone my skills further and gain interesting insights. I have delivered the results I promised to all my clients, and seeing them see that has been a reward in its own. Our methods have helped our own website rise through the search rankings and increase our own visibility- which has given us the confidence to take on more clients. One tip for other SEO players that I have- make sure you take data-backed decisions instead of going by hunches. Numbers don’t lie, but our biases often cloud our judgement. Assumptions can be misleading, so make sure you have the data to justify the strategy you plan.
--Avinash Chandra, BrandLoom
I started an SEO agency because 3 years working as a freelancer, I understood that there is only so much that you can scale as a one person business.
My 5 months of experience as an agency owner has been a mixed bag. The first employee that I put my heart and soul into training quit after 3 months and vanished without even giving notice, leaving me in a lurch but the two others I onboarded stepped up to the task even as freshers.
It taught me a valuable lesson that in business that you can't take everything for granted, there are going to be speed breakers and even crashes but you got to soldier on. The Coronavirus pandemic has broken the back of various businesses but I have had a lucky break with old contacts getting me new clients. You have got to be appreciative and I have come to realise that luck and your network too plays a part in your business success.
You might be the best SEO out there but running an SEO agency and being good at SEO are two very different things.
My advice to anyone who is starting a new agency is
1. The SEO agency business is a people's business just like any other business. You need to manage your employees because ultimately they are responsible for your client's success.
2. Be ready for unexpected events like clients missing payments, abruptly asking you to pause contracts. Not only will you need to have contingency plans but also hone your diplomacy skills.
3. Showcase your work and always communicate with your client. This is by far the biggest gap that clients begrudge SEOs for - Which is they are too technical and less business oriented.
Clients want to know why you want that sitemap updated, a certain landing page and how it will impact their ROI. Yes its not an exact science but giving these can help move the needle.
4. Care for your employees. The agency business more or less involves exchange of money for hours given that it is in the service sector. Be judicious with employee selections and early hires. Make sure that you always keep a learning environment where the employee feels they are growing careerwise because they are core to the success of an SEO agency.
--Collin Davis, Blue Digits
I started my agency after leaving another, well-known agency. My initial plans were to start consulting for a handful of businesses, but after a series of events and strategic partnerships formed, I decided to go all in and start Stryde. We've been in business for seven years and our experience has been great so far. Yes, there have been a lot of ups and downs over the years, but all in all, it's been what I expected going into it.
My previous agency was a $10 million agency with over 120 people. I knew going into this that I never wanted to be that big again. Too many people, too many clients, balls getting dropped, and lots of problems. As a result, I wanted to keep Stryde a small, boutique agency, hyper-focused on a handful of industries. This has allowed us to grow to a comfortable level where we can take great care of our clients, while delivering fairly good profits for the organization.
If I had one tip to provide readers looking to start or grow an agency, it would be to get focused. Pick a few services to offer clients in one or two industries. Become the go-to expert in those industries. It will also allow you to get more efficient (profitable) and provide the type of service no one else can because you deeply understand your clients businesses and what they are experiencing.
--Greg Shuey, Stryde
We started Digital Third Coast back in 2007. My partner and I were both doing SEO at the time and working for a large yellow page company. We decided to go off on our own because we wanted the freedom to do the things we wanted, and to do them better. It has been an amazing journey over the last 13 years and we have grown slow and steady since then. We are currently trending to be just under 3M in yearly revenue and 17 employees.
The biggest tips I would share are:
1. Don't seek out investors to start your agency. You don't need them, and they will weigh you down later. Bootstrap.
2. Specialize your agency as much as you can. Whether it's service type or industry. If you're everything to everyone, it's harder to market yourself. Full service is very overrated.
3. Invest in your employees and your agency's culture. It may not seem like the best place to put your time and attention, but having a happy team pays dividends in the long run.
--George Zlatin, Digital Third Coast
Why we started:
I bonded with my Managing Partner, Zach Boyette, over a rebellious attitude towards the marketing world and the ways we wanted to improve it. I wanted to use my extensive SEO background experience from companies like Toptal. Also, I love being an integral part in the growth of companies and I wanted to create a remote team around the world filled with growth hacking results-obsessed nerds.
Building it up:
It’s imperative to pick the right types of companies to work with/that align with what you believe in and realize the beginning will be WORK - 80 hour weeks at the beginning is normal. But, if you’re passionate about it, it will be more than worth it. Also, always focus on growth. Continually ask yourself: will this help us grow? And will this help our clients grow?
Doing things the right way will always prevail. This means implementing white hat best practices always. Don’t look for shortcuts or easy way outs; quality is everything.
--Irina Papuc, Galactic Fed
I started my agency in 2015, it has been a learning experience from day one. I have tried to get better and better what I do every day. I started off creating my own websites and ranking them, including several amazon affiliate websites. I started my agency, because I wanted to be successful at running my own business. I started to bring in more revenue when I determined what I was good at, what my core services were and what specific business I can help. Having the right tools and software to run your business is very important, many of them I use several times a day. You want to determine what your yearly revenue goals are. I would suggest that you set up some type of monthly revenue model, where you would get retainers for your work. Stripe allows you to set up your services and they handle all of the billing, so you don't have to chase clients down for money. I'd recommend that you determine what types of businesses you're going to work with and how you can help them, including what specific SEO services will you offer. Learn as much as you can, even if you have to pay for a course or service. As you grow, use a service like Upwork.com to identify consultants and freelancers that can assist in certain aspects of your business. As you bring in more revenue, finding people to fill spots in your work will be essential. It is really hard, so make sure you know it is going to take some time before you bring in enough money to cover a full time salary.
--Cale Loken, 301 Madison Consulting
I started TheOnlineCo. with a background in marketing, having run various business for about 13 years. We started out as a Google Ads agency and moved to SEO about two years later. The SEO component came about because the clients we were doing Google Ads for were also looking for help in SEO. So, we trained ourselves up, started building a larger team, and now SEO is one of the most successful areas of our business.
Our experience has been one of continuously growing as the technology continues to evolve. We’ve built our company up to a team of 20 and are always learning and developing to ensure we’re at the top of our game.
Our number one tip for SEO would be to always put the human first. Create a website that’s easy for your customer to navigate and gives them what they’re looking for. This includes high quality content, up to date information, relevant keywords and fast load speeds. This will yield the best results long-term.
It’s also important to understand how to avoid all the bad advice that exists all over the internet. Even at conferences, you’ll get two speakers stand up and provide completely contradictory information! Ultimately, if something feels shady, don’t do it. There’s a lot of advice out there promoting black hat techniques, but search engines are fast learners and implementing these techniques will only hurt your performance in the long run.
--James Parnwell, TheOnlineCo
I started my journey in the digital marketing world at the age of 17. For the initial three years, I worked as a freelancer. Together with that, I did my own research-based projects and grabbed deep knowledge of the industry. During that time I gained a lot of technical skills and market knowledge and together with that unknowingly I learned good client management skills. Later one of my First clients, Robe Noguria encouraged me to create my own digital marketing agency. There when I made up mind to establish Incrementors.
I have been running my agency since 2010. We started with 3 members and all three of us were like experts in their fields. It has been a very tough journey although it was also a remarkable experience. We used to provide web designing services to localities, we had a hard time finding any big customers at that time since our agency was completely new to the market. One of our clients was interested in SEO services which brought our attention to it. We started learning it as all of us per geeks and can easily observe anything. I can clearly see the importance of SEO for any business has significantly improved in the last decade. When we started, SEO was a myth, and people used to do Black Hat SEO. I have seen massive hits during Panda & Penguin updates and many others. As more businesses are now started believing SEO, it has now become a necessity from luxury. Search engines are developing their algorithms, the market has been rapidly expanding, demand, and supply both are on their peek. In 2012, SEO was all about a few techniques like directory submission, forum profile links, and blog commenting. But, now the definition is much more clear and guidelines have been established.
I anticipated a great potential in the SEO industry, I am very happy with my decision. As we started getting more and more projects daily, we started hiring people to handle it. I can proudly say that we were able to deliver customer satisfaction, enterprise-level training, and facilities to all our employees. We have been constantly growing with so many roadblocks but, we never stopped learning from mistakes. Today, we are a company of 50+ employees just in the headquarter in India.
The most demanding marketings for SEO or other web services were the only US, UK, and Canada. We decided to offer white label SEO services to all global customers. We had to understand how much business we’re driving to the local services like law firms, dentists, chiropractors, and more and what the average case value is for each firm.
We do a full diagnostic. We dive in and understand their business needs and goals. It is this substantial diagnostic where we get the conceptual agreement that’s where we get the nod. We have tried out different team compositions, implemented hundreds of internal updates, improved our strategy based on current trends, and delivered exactly what our clients are looking for.
We have marketing, sales, account management, operations, finance, and HR like any traditional company. We were primarily in SEO, PPC, and design. By looking at our P&L records, I realized that design and PPC are not bringing in a ton of revenue.
My recommendations for new agencies would be:
Resource optimization: Systematically arrange how internally you can handle any worst situation.
Plan: You can be a one-man army at the beginning but, that’s not what a company is right. You will be needing more employees and you have to pay them too. So you need to start to balance your income and expenditures. There comes a time when you need to plan things.
Sales: Sales are the backbone of your business. At any point in time, you can’t put all your efforts in handling clients and leave sales. Otherwise, you will be blocking the agency’s growth.
Process: This is something that you can’t streamline in your company if you don’t have some trustworthy employees, who believe in you and the structure of the ideology like to adopt the OKR (Objectives and Key Results). The objective is to set a process to earn the trust factor and that will lead you to the best process where you will have the productivity and Trust Me, you can hire a guy who knows how to set the process but you have to go to earn the trust value and invest into it.
Growth Strategy: You can exponentially grow your business only when you have a team to think about it. Build a strong team with motivated people who will be there with you in good and bad times. You may get some trust hiccups but, you will eventually be able to disguise the right person and build a professional relationship.
Client satisfaction: Your team should be motivated with a common agenda to deliver business to business. Yes, you are not solely responsible for this. But, you need to bring that into your agency culture.
--Shiv Gupta, Incrementors Web Solutions Pvt. Ltd.
Why did you start an SEO agency?
When I was first exposed to SEO, I was intrigued by how it works and the ever-changing algorithm of Google. I started to see many business websites that can be vastly improved by making use of SEO. Thus, I decided to start an SEO agency together with my wife to elevate these businesses and aid them in achieving their business goals. It's always an interesting journey to analyse results and constantly upgrade our skills.
What's your experience been like?
It has been challenging but fulfilling. The challenge is mostly on the hiring front. Since we're a start-up, it's hard to convince quality candidates that they'll be able to learn a ton. So, what we did was to look at what we can offer, which is a hands-on experience and some level of autonomy - which we emphasised on in our job listings.
We also took some time to figure out the optimal hiring process to vet candidates. In that regard, we read a lot about how seasoned companies are doing theirs.
As for doing SEO for our clients, we found that with every client we managed, we accumulated a lot more experience via trial and error. As a result, we're able to offer even better services for subsequent projects. Seeing positive results and getting positive feedback from our clients makes the experience rewarding.
Have you been able to build it up to a reasonable level?
We specialise in having one client per industry to prevent unethical competition. I would say we've been able to build our agency up quite a bit with a good range of clients under our portfolio. But of course, there's always room for expansion. We're still constantly looking for competent team members and new clients to come onboard.
What tips/advice can you share?
Network. It's important to build good relationships with clients - ensure that you're always accountable, communicate well and provide regular scheduled updates. If your clients have a good experience with your agency, they're most likely to refer you to even more clients.
--Shawn Lim, Traffic Bees
I have over 15 years of experience in SEO, but before founding my agency, I was a professional soccer player for 12 years. After retiring from soccer, I started multiple companies outside of SEO. It was paying outrageous PPC bills for those companies that guided me to SEO and learning what it took to rank organically. Transitioning into SEO felt natural to me because I genuinely enjoy helping business grow, and my competitive nature made SEO the perfect fit.
I am happy with how the agency has grown since our official start in 2010. Over those nine years, we have grown to over 180 clients without a sales team or any online advertising spend. I am proud of how much the agency has grown and even more proud of watching our clients businesses grow each year.
It's been a great experience and piece of advice I would give those just starting out is that it’s important to work with clients of all sizes and budget levels, especially early on. Early on, it will be the small budgets that set the foundation for future growth.
--Randy Soderman, Soderman Marketing