Thinking of Starting an SEO Agency? Here’s a Little Story and Some Advice

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There are hundreds of businesses selling courses trying to push you into starting your own SEO agency. And while there are many valid reasons to do it, there are just as many reasons not to.

As an SEO who’s built a profitable agency, in this post I want to share with you some of the pros and cons of starting your own SEO business in this competitive landscape. I’ll also pose some hard questions that you’ll need to answer if you want to make it.

But before I do, I want to shed some light on where everything started for me because it might feel strangely familiar to you right now.

What I did before starting an SEO agency

I got my start in SEO out of pure necessity.

Stephen Twomey of MasterMindSEO and his wife

I was in Salt Lake City, Utah, at the time. My wife and I had relocated there in 2008 shortly after we got married and I left my job as a personal banker at JP Morgan Chase. When we left for SLC, we had nothing lined up in terms of earning income. We were just young married kids who had a dream and desire for adventure.

When it was nearing the point that we needed money to continue paying rent and staying fed, I decided to go back to JP Morgan Chase as a personal banker. When I left the branch in my hometown of Traverse City, Michigan, I was the top performing banker in the region as well as the state. I thought getting the gig would be easy.

But when I applied for the position out west the recruiter acted very strange with me. There was indeed a position open, and she knew I was a good fit for it, but she was pushing back when there was no need to.

Eventually she told me I’d been blackballed by the district manager after leaving the Traverse City branch. He was upset I was leaving the organization because he wanted to make me a manager, so he decided to make sure I never got a job there again.

After this I decided I didn’t want to work for anyone again except for myself.

How I got started with SEO

I started looking for opportunities outside of banking. This was in 2009 when the housing market was horrible and the stock market sucked. Jobs for me were difficult to find. Not wanting to work for anyone and having a knack for finance, I decided to start an insurance agency.

After launching it I hired an SEO firm to help me with some marketing efforts. I had heard from many that this was the thing to do if you wanted to get a sustainable, growing source of leads on the cheap. But the firm failed miserably.

They sent zero monthly reports, no charts, nothing. I think I paid them $400/month for about four months of work. I’m not even sure my site was indexed by Google. This is when I took matters into my own hands.

I Google’d “how to blog.”

Early success as a non-SEO

After starting a Blogger site and blogging five days a week for a month I started showing up at the top of Google for earthquake-related insurance terms. This gave me an enormous sense of accomplishment – and it was bringing me in leads.

I quickly became more interested in the marketing side of the insurance business than the service side. To make a long story short, we moved back to Michigan, I grew tired of the insurance agency and dumped it, I did some random sales jobs, and eventually got into medical sales.

Yes, I had returned to working for someone other than myself once again…

Learning SEO to reclaim my freedom

While traveling extensively for medical sales I had a lot of time to kill at night. At first I spent this time sitting around and watching TV. And then one night, growing antsy, I decided to read about SEO. I remembered that great feeling I got from killing it with the insurance blogging.

SEO started off as a hobby, but then I got hooked up with my old buddy Scott Shaff from Tactical SEO. Scott took me under his wing and really showed me the ropes.

I bounced around some Facebook groups and courses, living and breathing SEO, and built up a lot of relationships with people who were doing better than me. Slowly they began to teach me, and as I showed improvement, I knew SEO was what I wanted to do full time.

I now have a pretty successful agency called MasterMindSEO and get to work from home about 95% of the time. But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. While running an SEO agency has its perks, there are just as many downsides. The trick is to be fully aware and okay with them.

What I learned from launching and growing the business

I’ll give you the pros and cons of starting an SEO agency straight up. After all, if the cons seem too much to handle, I’ll be saving you some reading time.

Pros Cons
Low cost to entry Low cost to entry (not a typo)
Can be very profitable You will need to sell
Work from anywhere What works today for SEO literally might not work tomorrow

Figure this out first

The first thing you need to do is figure out what kind of person you are on a social level.

If you like meeting with people every day and like selling, start a client consulting business like I did. On the other hand, if you have no desire to meet people, obviously don’t take on clients. Instead consider becoming an affiliate marketer.

Affiliate marketing is selling other people’s products (through content and SEO usually) and earning a commission on each sale. You don’t have to create a product. You simply sell what other people make and cash checks.

If you like meeting new people and selling, start a client consulting business. If you don’t, consider the life of an affiliate marketer.

That said, you don’t have to “be An SEO” in order to make money online. Just look at podcasts and mom and pop blogs. They crush it, and it’s all because they create some really good content and promote the hell out of it.

Yes, they might rank for certain keywords, but that’s typically the result of having a lot of traffic and a loyal audience. Both of those come from promoting content on social media and forming partnerships with influencers (I share your stuff, you share mine).

This approach takes a lot of time and patience though. Client consulting, on the other hand, is the quickest route to making money as a new SEO person. But again, you have to decide what your personality is and what your ideal lifestyle looks like.

Ask yourself if you’re all in

Making money online is probably what you’re really interested in. And as you might expect, the lifestyle of a digital entrepreneur is truly hard to beat. The flexibility it offers you in your personal life is impossible to obtain with an office job.

For example, on Tuesdays and Thursdays I’m fortunate enough to take my oldest son to and from school without rushing to and from work. To have the freedom to do little things like that and still earn a good living is very valuable to me.

But before starting an SEO agency, or any business for that matter, you need to ask yourself if you’re all in or just partly in. Because to succeed online you have to be obsessed with making it. You can’t be working on anything else career-wise, and you have to have no doubt it’s what you want.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays I’m fortunate enough to take my oldest son to and from school without rushing to and from work.

My advice is to do some research on the industry, and if you are leaning towards joining a course, talk to some of their members. And remember: Just because one person didn’t succeed with it doesn’t mean the program doesn’t work. Go by popular opinion.

Also, look inward and do some honest self assessment. If you’re terrible at sales and have no desire to get better, don’t convince yourself that you’ll be good in client consulting. If you don’t like sales now, you probably won’t warm up to it. Instead, partner up with someone who is good at sales or hire a salesperson. Or do something else entirely.

But if you’re someone who loves both the sales and service side, going all in solo like I did may be the best move for you as an aspiring SEO.

Find a mentor

The final step is to find a mentor. Do this by checking out local Meetups, finding people in your area on LinkedIn, or joining Internet marketing forums and Facebook groups.

There are lots of great Facebook groups out there for this industry like Digital Marketing Questions.

I’m lucky enough to have had Scott mentor me, as well as countless others (too many to list). Like most people, we owe many thanks to those that have helped us. And if you’re lucky enough, you can learn from great people like I have.

Are you ready to go all in?

Picture of Stephen Twomey and his wife

I’m very glad that I left my medical sales job. But quite frankly, the life of an entrepreneur and being an SEO is not for everyone. It takes a lot of self-discipline. It takes a supportive spouse if you are married.

The highs are amazing. (Think heading to the pool by 2pm on summer days because you put in 8 hours already.)

And the lows are terrible. (Think of helping get a client to the top of the search results, only to have them cancel on you because they think you’re not needed anymore.)

But if you are mentally fit and can weather these ups and down, it’s a wonderful road. If you are okay working 60 hours a week at first so you don’t have to work 40 for someone else, then maybe being an SEO agency owner is for you.

Let me know if you have any questions about getting started in the comments. I’d also be interested in knowing if you run an existing SEO agency and what your experience has been like.

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  • Manish Sharma

    So inspiring story. You boost my energy. I am going to start my SEO agency. Thanks for share

  • Thanks for sharing your experience Stephen. These tips are gold mine. I think having a really good mentor was one of the major factor that helped you through with the whole process. I was wondering, did you hired someone/an assistant when you started? or what is all you at first?

  • Great insight, Stephen. This industry is not for the faint of heart. The competition is fierce and finding a good mentor is tough. I started in SEO when the industry was extremely tight lipped so I learned by reverse engineering some of the best players in the game. This is what helped me to learn. Thanks for sharing your story, I really enjoyed reading it.

    • Hey @chriswalkerseo:disqus! Thanks for commenting on the article. Truly appreciate you reading it. Reverse engineering what is working and testing your own strategies are what make good SEO’s great. And shows who is merely a industry blog reader, and who is someone who thinks critically for themselves. Thanks again for reading the article my friend!

  • Machi

    Nice article, you have a fan from Italy! Hope to find a mentor like you do as soon as possible 🙂

    • Hi Machi! Glad you liked the article. Let me know if I can help you. Best wishes from winter wonderland.

  • Sussex SEO

    Reading this was like looking in a mirror. Was hoping for some insights to your attempts to scale/hiring staff or did you stay small?

    • Hey thanks for the question! I brought on a content manager first. I did this since we are doing guest post outreach along with other white hat link building methods for clients. Then brought in a link researcher and a dedicated out reach person. We have another full time writer and also use places like content broker etc to fulfill other content needs that arise.

  • shaftymon

    Great article Stephen, perfect read for the person looking to start up an SEO agency!