Owning your own business is a risky venture, but one that has a lot of potential rewards. If you’re successful, you can bring yourself financial freedom, the ability to set your own hours, and the kind of success many people only dream about. Along the way, though, it’s going to be a lot of work, with a lot of learning, a lot of pitfalls, and a lot of ways to fail.
One thing you can do to mitigate these potential failures is to prepare before you begin. That’s what this post is about; preparation. If you’re interested in starting an SEO business, you certainly can! There are thousands out there, serving websites large and small, with a wide range of unique value brought to the table. You can join the ranks; after all, there are still millions of websites out there run by people who have never heard of SEO, but would invest if you reached them.
Starting an SEO business requires some setup and some tools, which you can acquire ahead of time to make your grand opening that much smoother. So what do you need if you want to start such a business?
Decide on Focus
Perhaps one of the first things you need to do is decide on your focus, which entails two interlocked decisions. The first is your industry, and the second is your scale.
These days, it’s very hard to make a generic SEO agency that handles everyone. Sure, SEO services are basically the same regardless of your industry. However, picking an industry allows you to address potential customers in language they understand. If you’re targeting the hospitality industry, you might compare your customers to the Ritz. If you’re targeting a small beverage company, you could compare them to Pepsi. It’s all about the specifics of your future marketing.
This doesn’t mean you need to turn away customers because they’re not in your industry. If you happen to hook the wrong kind of fish, it’s still a fish, right?
Picking an industry will inform your branding, your future content, and your marketing. It can also give you an idea of what kind of scale you want to focus on. If you decide to target the hospitality industry, for example, you have options. You can focus on the small one-location bed and breakfast style inns. You can focus on small chains in relatively small regions looking to compete against the major chains. You can focus on the major chains, looking for those million-dollar contracts.
A smaller focus means lower value individual clients, but a higher number of clients. This may or may not be more work, depending on how centralized the websites of certain major brands happen to be. Focusing on a national or global chain could mean one contract worth more than you’ve ever made in your life, but it’s one of those major investments that you absolutely can’t screw up.
The scale of your focus will also indicate what level of service you want to provide. It’s easy enough to run a self-service platform and simply provide tutorials and support when you’re targeting small businesses and individual entrepreneurs. For large brands, that generally doesn’t cut it; they want to pay someone to do all the work for them, rather than paying for tools and also paying for employees to do the work.
I generally recommend aiming for an industry you’re at least somewhat familiar with, because it makes it easier and more natural for you to communicate with potential clients. When you speak their language and can bond based on mutual experiences, you have a better chance of closing deals. Once you’re established, of course, you can pay people to pretend to have any experience you want to attract whatever customers you want to find.
Come Up With Branding
Branding is a tricky question, and it’s something you need to think about in a lot of detail. Do you want to focus on results, like AudienceBloom? Do you want to focus on services, like Ahrefs? Do you want a service-agnostic but highly brandable name like Moz or Majestic? Do you want something focused on your industry, like Digital Hospitality or AutoRepairSEO? Do you want something focused on your geographic location, like Chicago Style SEO or Vegas SEO Guru?
My opinion is to focus on something relevant to your business focus. It’s hard to do a results-focused or service-focused branding when you aren’t engineering your own unique solutions or offering your own specialized tools. Something like Digital Hospitality works for the hospitality industry. Pick something that jives with what you want to do and what you have to offer.
Decide on Services to Offer
Speaking of what you have to offer, that’s also something you need to decide. Once you have your niche and focus down, you should do some investigation of your possible competition and look at what services they offer. Here are some ideas:
- SEO Audits: Either manual overviews performed via a checklist you maintain, or tools that can audit common issues with sites automatically.
- Consultation: Sales meetings you can use to go over a site audit and discuss what services might be necessary, what are optional, what you recommend, and what pricing may be.
- Strategy Reports: A report based on an audit that you can prepare; a sort of roadmap for SEO improvements. These can be contingent on signing a contract, or can be an expensive guidebook to give an in-house SEO team.
- Website Optimization: The actual service of crawling through the website making improvements. You can scale this based on services delivered; simple changes to meta data and basic code improvements can be cheap, while more detailed script repairs, security overhauls, or website migrations might be more expensive.
- Content Improvement: A huge part of modern SEO is tied up in content, so offering a content production and editing service can be very lucrative. Provide the services of a team of good writers to produce focused content, edit existing content, and remove bad content.
- Off-site SEO: Also called Inbound Marketing, you can consider offering link building, outreach, and influencer marketing services. This is better done when you have a client base you can tap for partnerships.
- Maintenance and Reporting: Ongoing monthly fees that operate partially as a retainer and partially as ongoing proof that you’re working, and that SEO is an ongoing task, not a one-time overhaul.
In part, choosing which services you want to offer will come down to being able to find sources for providing those services. If you’re experienced at doing it on a small scale yourself, you may be able to run a few services, but here’s the thing; you only have so many hours in the day.
If you’re attempting to do everything yourself, you’re going to burn out quickly, especially if you land an unexpectedly high maintenance client you don’t want to drop because the money is good. I’ve seen more than one novice entrepreneur work themselves to death trying to handle everything themselves.
There are two ways you can go about solving this problem. You can either subcontract services by acting as a reseller, or you can hire people to do the work for you. We call them “employees” or “contractors” and they’re very effective at saving you time and effort.
Look into existing companies that offer some of the services you want to provide. Many of them will have reseller options or deals you can make. For example, if I want to offer a content marketing plan, I can do most of the work of editing and posting content, but I can pay to have that content written for me. I save dozens of hours per week, provide excellent content, and retain a client list.
The key to remember is that you’re not necessarily providing your direct experience as an SEO expert; you’re providing your services as a business owner. It’s up to you to deliver the best service to your clients, and if that means hiring or contracting people with more experience than you, so be it.
There’s no shame in using existing tools. Part of what you’re providing is the package deal. Sure, anyone can use Google Analytics, but if you deliver GA alongside Olark live chat, site monitoring with Crazy Egg, content production, keyword research, and social media monitoring all at once, you’re adding value with the package deal.
Create Your Website
I don’t have a lot of advice on creating your website. Look at what exists, figure out what direction you want to go, and pay a developer to make it for you. Integrate whatever dashboards you need, figure out your client communication channels and reporting methods, spin up a blog. There’s a lot going on with web design. It’s such a big topic you should really look into a few blog posts on that subject alone, rather than a couple paragraphs I throw together.
In general, though, your website should be clean and crisp, telling potential clients who you are and what you do. Transparency is good, so a public pricing and services page can be great. Once you’ve racked up a list of clients, you can start adding testimonials and client lists. And, of course, you need a robust contact page.
Start Finding Clients
The important part of starting a business is, well, having customers.
If you don’t have customers, who cares how good your site is or what services you offer? So how can you pull in clients?
- Produce a ton of content and get ranked in Google. This, again, is a whole topic I can’t just cover here; entire websites are dedicated to it. But hey, if you’re looking to provide SEO services for clients, the first thing you should do is be able to provide it to yourself.
- Offer some free tools. A free SEO audit can be a hook to sell services to fix the problems it finds, though you never want to make up problems like those fake malware scanners do. That turns a business into a scam. You can also offer free trials of your services at various levels.
- Give away information. It’s easy to write resources, in the form of blog posts, white papers, ebooks, and detailed guides. Or, should I say, it’s easy to pay someone else to write those so you can give them away. The better your free resources, the more clients will trust you to know what you’re doing.
- Reach out to “competitors” and make partnerships. Maybe you want to focus on small bed and breakfast clients that can be time consuming to analyze. Make a deal with a company specializing in larger hotel chains; they send smaller clients to you, you send larger clients to them. Set up a finders fee in both directions of a percentage of the business, so neither side is tempted to keep the clients because of lost profits.
- Set up a referral program. You can give away anything from free weeks or months of service to monetary rewards for referrals. Get your existing customers excited to recommend you to their peers; word of mouth can be exceptionally valuable.
- Leave a mark. Use your client sites for advertisement. All it takes is a small footer link – nofollowed, to avoid spam flags – and a line like “SEO by MyNewSEOCompany.” Anyone who is researching your clients to see how they succeed can click that link and be delivered to your landing page.
Visibility helps pull in clients, and resources help them see how valuable you can be.
What About Funding?
If you’re looking for investors or funding, you’re going to be waiting a long time. No one wants to drop capital on a business that has no proven history, no unique product, and nothing to offer. Thankfully, most of the services you’ll want to use come with free initial weeks or months, or are free tools themselves. You can set up your business with minimal actual investment, and use the income from your first few clients to spin up everything else.