How To Start a SEO Company | My Advice After Breaking a Million Revenue
You know what irritates me the most? All the “How to start a SEO Company” articles from quote “SEOs” who havnt even broken 100K in annual revenue. Nothing makes my blood boil more than seeing underachieved people telling people how to strategically start a SEO company. Let’s step back for a minute, I understand what I just wrote seems very salty, however keep in mind that I’m not taking away achievements made by anyone, it’s just I believe in order to give SOLID STARTUP ADVICE, YOU NEED TO BE SUCCESSFUL YOURSELF.
Disclaimer: Proudly representing zero affiliate links in this article.
How to Start a SEO Company
Table of Contents (Click to Jump)
- Should or Shouldn’t You Start a SEO Agency?
- Differences between Sole-Proprietorship vs Incorporation
- Book Keeping (Your Financial Data)
- Choosing a Business Name
- Building an Agency Website / Business Website
- Are you Niching Down or Going Broad?
- Accepting Client Payments
- Building Appealing Project Proposals
- Project Management
- Advertising Yourself Without Paid Advertising
- Advertising Yourself With Paid Advertising
- Scheduling Prospect Appointments
- Tracking Client KPIs – Key Performance Indicators
- Take Away Thoughts
Should or Shouldn’t You Start a SEO Agency?
Plain and simple, nine to fives suck, though don’t think that business ownership is all pearls and diamonds either. There have been plenty of days where I have woken up and thought to myself “What am I going to do to make ends meet?”. Before you even begin doing your research on how to start a SEO company you need to first be at a stage mentally where you can commit to pulling through plenty of future hardships. Keep in mind, these hardships are a lot different than any you’re ever going to experience at a nine to five job working for someone else. Here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding whether or not your going to start a SEO agency.
- If you don’t commit to the grind, you wont be above average successful.
- You can’t ever “just walk away from work”.
- Holidays are never guaranteed off.
- If you have thin skin, working for yourself isn’t right for you.
- Clients believe they’re always right.
There are many more I could list, but for everyones sake (including mine) let’s just stick with these for now. If you feel like you can personally champion the five points listed above, I believe its safe to say your good to start exploring starting your own SEO agency.
Sole Proprietorship or Incorporation
Disclaimer: I am not qualified to give you real legal advice, however I can share with you why I incorporated how I did as it made most sense financially.
You’ve decided that you want to move ahead with your dream of working for yourself by starting a SEO company, awesome! This is the beginning of a long journey but you’ll surely make it. Before you even start thinking about how to market yourself, what to charge SEO clients, and so on…. you need to consider your own personal protections. Are you going to incorporate as a business or remain a sole proprietor?
Sole Proprietors: Self employed but assume all the liability were a client decide to sue you. If a client sues you and wins their erected case they can technically sue you for everything you have including but not limited to your money, house, car, everything. Come tax season you would submit a 1099 form to show the IRS (if you live in the USA) claimed income which then needs to be taxed. If you go this route, I highly recommend submitting quarterly tax payments so that you avoid a large IRS bill at the end of the year.
Limited Liability Company (LLC): The state of Wyoming was the first state to legally recognize limited liability company formations. LLC’s are considered an easy route to safety nets were a client to sue you and win. Unlike Sole Proprietorship’s, LLCs keep you safe from being sued personally. If a a client decides to sue your business they can only sue to win your BUSINESS assets. This includes but is not limited to business funds, business vehicles, owned business space, among other properties deemed part of the business itself. Pretty nice, right? Fortunately, all fifty states recognize LLC’s and its extremely cheap to file for a LLC if you do it yourself (which isn’t really hard). However, I always recommend taking the further step by hiring a legal representative to help you complete the paperwork if you can afford to do so. The big issue I have with LLC formations is that your business will get taxed twice. You will find that your business income gets taxed, and then you get taxed a second time when you get paid and when employees receive their paychecks. There is a good solution to this double tax problem however.
S Corporations: PlacementSEO (the agency I co-own, is formally registered as a S Corporation.) S Corporations work very similar to LLC’s when it comes to legally protecting you from personal lawsuits however there are two stand out differences. One: S Corporations deal shares to shareholders instead of equity like a LLC does. Second: S Corporations can be leveraged as pass through income businesses, meaning you essentially get taxed once. If you company is bringing in a lot of revenue, it makes sense to be a S Corporation because when money comes in you only get taxed on that money when you pay out to employees. It’s pretty awesome, though you need to be aware that you still have to pay quarterly business tax as every business formation is required to do so. If you decide to incorporate as a S Corp I highly recommend that you pay yourself as a W2 employee. This will help you buy a home later in life or qualify for other larger loans if you ever needed them.
Keeping Your Books in Order (Seriously)
After getting through the first year as a digital marketing agency and being extremely profitable I quickly learned a lesson: life’s a mess when your books are a mess. Here is the evolution of our book keeping over the last two years.
- Not recording incoming and outgoing transactions at all (nuclear option)
- Recording all outgoing transactions in a shared Google Sheet (so secure)
- Purchasing a cloud printer and printing all transactions (lol)
- Handing over our paypal and bank to CPA to record (lol)
- Hiring a personal book keeper (ding ding ding)
Don’t just automatically assume that because someone is a certified public accountant that they excel at book keeping. This is hardly the truth at all. I completely recommend finding a dedicated service that can handle the book keeping for you. You might be thinking that this sounds like a waste of money but keep this in mind.
- Bookkeeping done right is time saved in April. (taxes)
- At any moment you need financial data, you have it accurately.
- Want to get bought out one day? Have good books at hand.
- Bookkeeping takes a ton of time that needs to be spent on other work.
I’ve had my share in finding the perfect bookkeeping strategy from doing it manually to hiring a local CPA to do this for me. Let me save you some time, I’ll share with you exactly who we use, how much we pay, and why I’ll never stop their services.
Bench.co saved me from bookkeeping apocalypse.
For a company in the millions of revenue, we spend $275.00 a month on Bench.co currently (as of January 6th 2018). When we started we actually paid slightly more though just recently they gave us a nice price adjustment without me even asking for it. Pretty awesome right? Though I wont spend too much time telling why these guys are awesome, I will say that they are the greatest service I’ve ever used for bookkeeping. Their program logs all inbound and outbound money from your business, including payroll, and then their team of CPAs manually build your financial reports at the end of each month, and they’re dead accurate. Keep in mind, this is only a bookkeeping service, you still need a CPA to do your taxes.
Other Bookkeeping Services to Consider:
Choosing a Smart Business Name (brand)
Choosing a business name is extremely important. You should know that your “doing business as” name doesn’t have to be the same as the business name you use to incorporate with (if you chose an option other than a sole proprietorship). If you incorporation name is different, you need to file a DBA (doing business as) form stating that there’s another operating name associated with your legal corporation identity.
What name you choose is super important. Choose a name that you won’t want to change at a later time. Changing your brand name is like starting a SEO company all over again. Here are a few considerations to thing about when choosing a name for your new SEO business.
- Is it easy to misspell the name?
- How easy is the name to remember after hearing it only once?
- Is the website domain available?
- Does the name have any trademarks associated with it?
- When someone says your brand name does it shout “marketing”?
Another piece of advice I highly recommend following: Choose a business name where .com .net .org .info and .biz domain TLDs are currently available. If you can afford to do so, register them all. However, if you are lacking in funds, at least try obtaining the .com .net and .org.
Two Ways to Build an Agency Website
Whether you starting your SEO company on the cheap or you have a bit of capital to play with, there are only two realistic ways in my mind to developing a SEO agency website.
- Using WordPress and a free or premium theme
- Hiring a website developer.
Lets start with WordPress: Making it so darn easy to start a SEO website, WordPress is incredible. Unless you have zero time to invest into building out even a basic website, WordPress is an amazing starter option allowing you to “upgrade” to a more premium agency look after you begin turning revenue. To make it even easier you could invest $50.00 into a premium WordPress theme that’s practically built for you, all you have to do is upload the theme and activate its addons. My favorite place for WordPress themes? Theme Forest. Here are a few themes to get your mind churning.
A more premium option you can take, especially as you begin turning positive revenue, is a service called 99Designs, the company behind our website at PlacementSEO. Between the design and coding of the WordPress theme we spent around $5,000.00, but it was worth it. Don’t let the price scare you either. We paid for the most premium package which gave us about seventy design concepts to choose from before committing to a developer.
Niching Down, What the Heck Does That Mean?
If you follow Stuart Trier, you’ve heard of the term Niching down. What does this mean and how does it apply to you? Niching down is the concept of only taking on certain clients that fall into a selective industry. For instance, you would start a SEO company that hyper focused on dealing marketing services to Cannabis industry companies. You might be asking yourself, “why would I want to dedicate my self to one industry when there are hundreds of industries that need SEO?”.
Good question. Lets say your pitching a fast food restaurant local SEO. Your proposal has been submitted to the restaurant owners and the owners have three other proposals they’re also considering. Let’s speculate that one of the competing proposals is from a company that ONLY focuses in restaurant local SEO, who would the owners choose? Like plumbing work, do you go to a plumber or a do it all contractor?
There’s nothing wrong with accepting all types of clients, that’s how we started PlacementSEO.com, however, as soon as we started turning profit we broke brands out that focused specifically on target verticals we deemed profitable.
Client Management (Payments / Invoicing)
This is where things become seriously important. How to manage client profiles, accepting invoices, and using an organized invoicing system. The number one software in my books, and has been since we started on day one, is WHMCS.com. WHMCS is a God send, seriously. Although the platform is built for companies wanting to offer web hosting and domain registrations you can easily strip its features for SEO agency purposes. Here are the benefits of using WHMCS.com as an all in one billing management system.
- Lifetime licenses and monthly license options available.
- Handles client profiles like names, email, addresses, and more.
- Directly integrates into Stripe.com
- Directly integrates into Paypal.com
- Supports more than 150 payment gateways.
- Built in customer support ticketing system
- Live chat abilities for customer service
- Amazing invoicing system with auto reminders
- Supports one time payments + subscriptions
- Tells you your gross earnings before processing fees
- Tells you net earnings after fees
- Even keeps your financial records, though I recommend Bench.co
- Even offers admin mobile apps for iOS and Android
- Built in proposal system, though limited
It’s very likely I am missing key features here, but the list above provides our agency all we need to successfully operate. WHMCS is self hosted meaning you install it to your server while securing it with SSL. If you cant afford the lifetime license you can pay $15.00 a month for a pay as you go license.
Other Billing Management Tools
Disclaimer: I have only worked with WHMCS from day one of our agency so I have little experience with other billing and invoicing tools.
Building and Managing Proposals:
Proposals are extremely important as they are likely the very first form of material a prospect sees before working with you as a paid client. We have tried several proposal platforms and for the price, Betterproposals.io is amazing. If you missed the amazing life time deal by Appsumo.com, then dang! We use Better Proposals everyday, and live it. They also allow you to use your own custom domain so prospects never see the BetterProposals branding. Quite nice really! However, here are my favorite proposal builders for startup and enterprise agencies alike.
- WHMCS Software Built in Proposals
To sum up the proposals section may I suggest also visiting Graphic River where you can download a whole database of proposals that are editable in Microsoft Powerpoint. Just edit the files, save as PDF, and your good to go. This is an excellent alternative and can download amazing looking proposals for fifteen dollars.
Managing Your SEO Clients
We talked about accepting payments and sending invoices but you also need to have a solid plan for managing projects and task when it comes to executing SEO campaigns for your clients. There are way too many project management tools to count, however, after seemingly testing them all through PlacementSEO.com, Asana.com came out on top. Here are the Asana features that benefit our agency the most.
- Asana directly integrates into our company slack.
- Asana’s free plan is amazing for SEO company startups.
- Fast and responsive Asana apps for iOS and Android
- Manage tasks for unlimited projects via paid and free versions
- Incredible Staff task management
- Overdue task reminders
There are so many more features that we use at our agency and if your looking for a seriously feature rich project management tool for your new SEO startup, Asana is the way to go. Let me add, you can also easily create SOPs that can be pre-loaded into any Asana project you make thus getting your employees and VAs to work more quickly, and efficiently.
If your looking for more of a todo list than anything, wunderlist.com is going to be the best bet which also offers mobile applications and slack integration.
Non-Paid Brand Advertising
PlacementSEO produced traction from non paid advertising because we had little to no cash to invest ourselves. Literally everything we spend now on our agency comes from profits made from client projects. So the question is, what means did we use to get ourselves into market and known by other brands?
- I followed this free strategy to the “T”.
- I participated heavily in SEO Signals Lab, Lead Stacking, and Marketing Cheat Guides.
- I went participated in networking events where I shared free information.
- I offered free SEO work in trade for reviews to help build my brand reputation.
- I posted on Craigslist and Reddit daily.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to network. I guarantee you that your area has events that happen regularly which you can attend and if your not familiar with meetup.com I recommend go to their site to find nearby events. Also, if you’re niching down and focusing on a single vertical to provide marketing services, find website related to your specialty field that offers a forum. Often times you will find business owners asking questions that you, as a marketing expert, can confidently answer, thus building trust and brand with your potential customers.
Resourceful websites for locating networking events:
Additional Non-Paid Advertising Ideas Offered by the Lead Stacking Facebook Group:
- Cold-calling businesses with terrible AdWords setups.
- Craigslist, biz card bulletin boards, vehicle graphics, bartering
- Pinning my business cards in different locations like church also with vendors who sell associated products for my services. Also, I have industry friends and laborers who work with me getting the word out to their connections.
- Cold calls, cold emails, networking and social channels. We do our own seo – don’t know if you’d call that free.
- Business FB groups – I originally found the method from Lion Zeal. You just need to be careful not to step on anyones shoes. I tried the same method the same day and another SEO who was apparently the primary SEO in the group got defensive.
- Facebook ads that are for local companies and set up to be a mess! Message them and point some things out.
Paid Business Advertising
Starting a SEO company is a little easier when you can jump on the paid ads bandwagon, however, don’t consider paid ads the “go to get me rich” alternative if you’re struggling to make sales. Remember what I’ve been saying all along, our agency started making solid on profits on FREE means of advertising from the list I gave you above this section. However, after throwing thousands and thousands of dollars into paid advertising here are my conclusions.
Facebook is awesome – but not for capturing traditional leads. What I mean is, the only way I’ve successfully ran Facebook ads is by double spending on leads. I would pay for the lead + give the lead a free service to prove my trustworthiness and work quality. Sounds expensive, right? Though keep in mind our average ticket client is $7,000 a month. Would you be willing to throw $100.00 at an opportunity of gaining $7,000 gross recurring? Probably. Through Facebook ads I achieve collecting solid targeted leads using pixels while being able to prove that our services are the best. Forty percent of the time leads would turn into a healthy marketing contract, or roughly every $600.00 we would gross a new $7,000 monthly commitment.
If you’re looking to get serious into Facebook ads, be it for yourself or by providing Facebook ad management to clients, look no further than….
Adespresso accelerated my learning of Facebook ads by ten fold. Long story short, Adespresso connects to your Facebook advertising account. Through the Adespresso console you create your two or three ad variations and then Adespresso turns those ads into 50+ split tests automatically. When you publish all of your ads, Adespresso will split your total budget between all split tests all while analyzing which ads perform the best. With all of the data you collect through Adespresso you can then disable the under performing ads and move budget to ads that are bringing in more qualified traffic. Simply put, it’s amazing.
My favorite things about Adespresso:
- Its cheap, $49.00/m no contracts
- The user interface is incredible
- You can make ads for all ad objectives on Facebook
- The data collected seriously saves you money
- Set your ads and forget, check their performance tomorrow.
Disclaimer: I have not used any other tool other than Adespresso because its just too amazing to leave.
Linkedin has proven to be a great resource for advertising especially if you’re searching for business to business clients. Over the period of a couple of years I have tested Linkedin and have determined that the inMail feature works the best. Here’s how it works.
- Create a Linkedin Business Page (free)
- Go to the advertising section of Linkedin
- Choose the inMail selection.
inMail advertising allows you to drop direct messages into the Linkedin inbox of decision makers. Depending on the strength of your email copy you can and will see pretty amazing results when prospecting new customers for your SEO company. I do recommend however that you keep your messages short, simple, and you offer a way for your prospect to setup a phone call without having to message you back. (we will cover that in the next section). On average I pay $1.50 for every inMail delivery.
Reddit advertising is another killer way of promoting yourself. We’ve talked about niching down several times in this article and Reddit is a great place to put your name in front of a niche audience. If you’re not familiar with Reddit, you can find sub reddits that are specifically designated to different industries such as Real Estate, b2b, electronics, ecommerce, and so much more. The Reddit advertising platform allows you to directly advertise into a sub-reddit, thus targeting your niched down industry. We started doing this a very long time ago and it truly turned over very impressive results. I recommend trying Reddit if you have one or two hundred dollars per month to spend.
Example Industry Targeted Sub-Reddits:
Simply Googling “Industry + Reddit” will bring up everything you need to get started.
Tracking Leads / Setting Appointments
Advertising, free or paid, is great and can really bring in new business. However, how do you track everything be it leads, real clients, and so on? I kid you not, I’ve met other SEOs who do ABSOLUTELY nothing to track their client KPIs (key performance indicators). In my opinion, if your overall goal is to “NOT” track client revenue growth via organic search, you should not be offering online marketing service. People who do not track their work make a bad name for our industry and are doing themselves no good by building no safety nets when clients start challenging the success of their SEO campaigns and contract renewals.
That said, I 100% back and encourage you to try out the calendar tool called Calendly. Calendly is amazing for those of us encouraging prospects to setup phone calls at a time that’s most convenient to them. For example: Ill email a client, or lead, and ask if they have a few minutes to visit on the phone. I then welcome them to click on my calendly link where they can set a time to talk. As soon as they submit the Calendly form the meeting auto syncs to my Google Calendar. Its a pretty simple process, but I need it. Here’s my favorite perks of Calendly.
- Its cheap, like $9.00 a month and completely worth it.
- Automates Appointment Setting
- Handles reschedules should a client need to cancel.
- Handles stripe payments for SEO Consultants charging for time.
- Handles auto meeting reminders to clients (amazing)
I have not tried any other tool that would be an alternative to Calendy because it works as I need it to. However, I know Appsumo.com had a recent lifetime deal on an app that offered similar functions. Alternatively, you can go to Codecanyon which sells a one time App that has similar features to Calendly.
Tracking Client KPIs / Performances
Bottom line, increased client revenue is the best KPI you can provide (key performance indicator). For those of you reading this who already have your own consultancy / SEO business and fail to track anything BUT traffic, shame on you. Time and time again, Gary (my partner) and I always share with each other in slack how we’re multiplying client revenues strictly through consumer search. The best part of this is, if the client EVER asks us to prove whether or not SEO is working for them, we can show them the numbers that really matter ($).
Google Analytics: Obvious enough, if you don’t use Google Analytics, you need to. For those of you reading who have no idea what the heck Google Analytics is, click here. Best part is, it’s free! The first step to great performance tracking is achieved by installing Google Analytics. When configuring Google Analytic Goals you will be able to measure the value of traffic through consumer spend, thus allowing you to monitor, track, and report on revenue strengths and weakness that flow through your SEO campaign.
Accuranker: We’ve tried everything when it comes to rank tracking and hands down, but accuracy and affordability, Accuranker won our hearts. Perfect for local keyword tracking and national / global tracking, Accuranker is extremely easy to use and even automates reports to clients based on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly schedule you set for each campaign.
KPI Dashboards Clients Will LOVE: A good friend of mine over at VictoriousSEO uses Agency Analytics for real time KPI tracking. It is paid, and might cost a bit of money, but if you do your job right you will have the best clients in the world because they can always “be in the know” concerning their campaigns they pay you to run. Another alternative to a freemium KPI dashboard is Dasharoo, which I have used before, and its incredible. I certainly recommend looking at both the options I listed above.
Take Away Thoughts:
If you feel confident in starting your own SEO company, at least form a corporation for tax purposes, it’s cheap. Also, from day one do yourself a favor and make sure your books are done correctly, as I mentioned above I recommend Bench.co to do this.
When I was first searching how to start a SEO company I never did find a collected article of thoughts and insights such as this, I really hope it has helped you further collect information you need to successful begin your own SEO journey.
There are three Facebook Groups that I absolutely recommend for beginner, intermediate, and expert SEOs.
Is something missing from this article that you would like to include? Comment below your thoughts and advice! After all, sharing is caring!