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In this episode of Ecoffee with Experts, Matt Fraser interviewed Stephen White, the director of Spaced Digital. Stephen shares his experience of helping small to midsize companies get more traffic and offers his profound thoughts on establishing a successful marketing firm. Must-watch for aspiring entrepreneurs.
There’s no hard and fast set of rules for SEO. It’s more inquisitive. If you dig into it, you test things out, you try things out, see what works, what doesn’t.
Thanks a lot for having me. And I am really looking forward to this.
Good question. They would dangle the carrot in front of me. I used to play a lot of times on sports teams. So, if I would misbehave in class, they would be like, you won’t be able to play football if you’re misbehaving. So, I was a bit mischievous, but they would keep me in shape by saying I couldn’t play sports if I didn’t behave. So yeah, I think mischievous would be the answer to that.
I think I was always out of university. I was always like, I want to do marketing, I want to do marketing. Before you start working on it, you think it’s just a narrow discipline. You know, I want to work in marketing. And then when you start to learn about it a bit more, you realize there are so many levels to it. So, I luckily had a brother who is two years older than me. He is a project manager for a web development agency and so when I was looking for a job and I was saying, I want to work in marketing, I want to work in digital marketing, I want to do something similar to you. He was like, hold on. My skill set is built around project management and it suits that role. Would you rather go into like PPC, SEO and the different, different kind of channels like this. So we kind of sat down together and worked out for me that SEO would be a good kind of route to go in. So, Yeah, it was. It had that side to it and then my dad runs his own company, which is an aerial photography company. He flies around the UK taking photographs of various different things. He had his own website. So, me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed looking to try out my new SEO knowledge. Luckily, he let me try out a couple of things on his site and so I managed to do it back then, but I managed to get a couple of blog posts ranking on his website and then I went to a few agencies and I was like, look, I’ve done this on the website for my dad, can I get an internship? And that’s kind of how I first got my foot in the door of agencies.
I think because, for PPC, I’m not a numbers guy, I’m not as methodical. I quite enjoy the freedom of SEO. There is a tried-and-true stuff that’s worked in the past, but because the algorithm is, you know, kept under lock and key and it’s more of a mystery. There’s no hard and fast set of rules for SEO, it’s more inquisitive. If you dig into it, you test things out, you try things out, see what works, and what doesn’t. And I thought that suited me a little bit better in terms of my skill set.
Yeah. I think that’s what kind of I think appealed to me as well. It seemed like there were a lot of different skill sets in that you could go down the technical route and be a very heavy kind of more developer-focused SEO who focuses on the technical side of things. Or you could go more down the content, the creative content or the content marketing side of things, go down that route. And I think that appealed to me where it was like you had a few different options and then yeah, as sort of getting more into it and learning more about it’s kind of yeah, more than SEO does now, especially encompasses so many different areas, you know, user experience, the development side of it. Like site speed and Google’s called their vitals and just there’s lots of stuff that goes into it. So, I felt like it was a good group.
I think that initially as you had said before like you were saying, you used to carve out a bit of time every day to stay up to date with reading certain publications and news on digital marketing. I’m the same. I’ve got my trusty kind of news sites and newsletters that I follow for certain people. So, it’s a case of just still reading those, still taking the time, because it’s a new thing. You know, if you didn’t look at the news or say, look at LinkedIn and follow people in the community, stuff like people’s recent helpful content updates could just pass you by. So, I definitely think LinkedIn is a good source for it. But then the typical kind of search engine journal and search engine roundtable and those kinds of things and then there’s the SEO FOMO newsletter as well, which is really good.
I think it’s called SEOFOMO.
Yeah, it’s a nice one to sort of summarizing a lot of thought leaders in the industry, the content that they put out on their blog and their company websites, not just the large publications that tend to kind of put out similar content.
Not necessarily Facebook, I’ve never been so big on Facebook. I’ve always tried to shy away from using Facebook quite a lot. But that was the SEO Blueprint Community
They’ve got a Slack channel which is now paid, which is $49 or something a month. But I’ve not signed up for that yet. But when it used to be free because we had bought the course, the blueprint course of our own store, and that was a great community of people. And I think it will probably just only get better now because they’ve charged for it. So, it will only be people kind of looking to get the most out of it as well now. So, I think it’s not something we’ve jumped in and done yet, but it’s definitely one that’s on our horizons kind of sign up too.
No, I’d done an internship before in a small local agency, and then moved to another similar size agency where my brother actually worked. So, he got me the SEO job at the agency he was working at. Well, he likes to say he got me the job.
Yeah, exactly. So yes, we worked together for nearly three or four years, I think. And then there was a boutique kind of ecommerce agency. I first joined, there were about ten people and then it got up to about 20-25 people. And then I had only worked in small agencies in the past, so I moved to Mindshare, which was a much larger company.
I’m trying to think now in terms of like this, you know, there were thousands of employees, I think at Mindshare there were hundreds. And then with the parent company included, which was WPP and that had thousands of people. So, lots of different kinds of similar agencies. That was kind of my first experience of working at a large agency like that on much larger clients, for example. So it was good to get that kind of experience, working at a small agency and then working at the larger agency.
I mean, I didn’t like the larger clients as much because there was a lot more red tape. You know, the sweet spot for me is it’s kind of like smaller companies with, you know, like, you know, even like 50 to, say, 200 employees, that kind of range where it’s not yeah, there’s not too much red tape to kind of go through where some of the clients that we were working with, we would suggest the change it would then have to get fed into the legal team, get signed off. And then by the time you made the change, it’s like, oh, we want to make another change. So, it was a lot of stuff like that. Whereas I had quite enjoyed at the smaller agencies a lot more personal relationship with the marketing manager or the business owner, and they get more. It’s more kind of like working together with them. They’re really motivated for growth. They’re very heavily invested in the company because that you have a founder or part of the founding team and it could work like that. So, I think that was the major difference to me and I think that’s where like even if we had the opportunity to push towards, say, working with the Nike and Adidas kind of like large clients, I would still prefer to work with smaller businesses where we have that personal relationship and really just help people kind of grow their company from a certain size up to the next level.
Yeah, yeah. So, I think for me, the self-belief. So, before even kind of starting it, the idea of being able to start the company had kind of come from my dad because I’d seen him. He’d always owned his own company and kind of for like, okay, that is an option. You can’t own your own company. Like, my dad does it. It’s not like a thing that kind of seems very far away. So, I think it helped initially to have that idea and then when I worked at that agency with my brother, we were a small team and you sat next to the two owners of the company. You hear the sales call, you hear them putting in all this work around the business, and you learn all of these skills. So, I’m sitting right next to them picking up all of this stuff, that’s amazing. And that, again, kind of gave me the belief of like, oh, okay, like I could do that too, I personally feel I’m good at SEO. I can do what they do and start a company to sell it to other people. So again, that’s where that little bit of belief came from and when I moved to Mindshare and I went there to go and work on a client that they’d paused the budget. And I didn’t end up working on that client, I worked on a different client and there wasn’t much work for that client. I had a lot of spare time and I was a little bit bored twiddling my thumbs about kind of kickstarted the idea of like, okay, let’s try to start getting some freelance clients on the side. And I’ve luckily found an agency just down the road that was looking to outsource their SEO. They had too much SEO work. So, I was like, Yeah, I can do that. I’ll help you charge a very low day, right? And then slowly they had enough hours from them and a couple of other clients that I’d got from just word of mouth. I think the biggest thing for me just came from me telling people I’m a freelance SEO now, even though I had just one client, I was just telling it to people and I think the thing that helped is that I’d set up the company’s website, so I’d set up like the landing page for space to come up with the company name. And, that again, I think made it seem a little bit more real, which helped us get a couple more clients because they were like, Oh, look, he has an actual landing page, he has this. So it went from having enough clients to move from my full-time job and get paid more doing the freelance stuff and then slowly kind of built that up, got one employee, got two employees and it just slowly built up from there.
Yeah, It was a tricky one. I didn’t realize I could almost, it’s a weird thing. I thought I was doing all this work myself and I knew I wanted to grow the company and get more people in, but I was kind of doing this work myself. Let’s say I’m 100% of my capacity. It felt weird to bring someone in and then do say 75% of that. And then I now only have 25%, which is going to happen with this free time. And I’m like, hold on, shouldn’t I be doing stuff? So, it was I left it too late. I think I would have hired someone if I could go back and do it again or find some way earlier on and realize, oh that, that free 75% that I would have got by saying, hiring someone and giving them the work would have helped immensely but in my head I was nervous. I’m familiar with SEO work, I can do that every day. I can do that inside out to do it. My eyes closed. But then the sales and the agency side are brand new to me, so I was a bit nervous about making that jump as well. I suppose that played a bit of a part in it as well. I suppose.
Well, I did it for a bit. And then I had like one of our clients who actually turned into a mentor. He owns a dental practice in Liverpool and they scaled it from a small practice up to like a multi-million-pound practice, massive dental practice in Liverpool. I helped him a bit with his SEO and because he’s had all this experience with running a business, he introduced me to that book. So, I read that book ages ago before it made sense to me prematurely. And then he was like, look, read it again as I’ve read it again, then that then kick in like the point of like, that I knew it’s going to not work, if you don’t do this. Don’t find someone to process, put everything in the processes, but give it to the person to get them to do.
The crazy thing.
Yeah, I fully agree. I think the key to running an agency or running a business that I always found is figuring out something for yourself. And then once you know it a bit, breaking that down, giving it to someone else to do it. Obviously, the dream would be to have enough capital just to hire someone better at it than you anyway. And of course, it’s kind of a learning process, but a lot of the time you have to do it and then make enough money from it to then hire someone.
Yeah, it introduced me to the book Profit First. And that was an eye-opening side of things because, personally, money management is something that I’ve had to learn to kind of get better at. So that automatically translates to your business. If you’re bad at your money management, you’re going to be bad at your business money management.
Money management. So that book helped massively in terms of especially just even just the one thing from that book is as in England where we have VAT, so you make a sale, and a chunk of that automatically goes to the government, but they don’t collect it until every three months or whatever, so you safely put it away and then the problem that I had at the start is that it was just all in this one account.
So, I think that was the one biggest lesson was just seeing as it comes in in the bank that we use now, as soon as it comes in, it automatically goes into a different pot.
Exactly. That has been the greatest thing because you kind of get towards the end of the quarter, and it’s like you have the right amount of money in your bank accounts. So yeah, I think I’d say that’s my biggest lesson, my friend.
Yeah, it’s true.
It’s a good question. I don’t think it did too much, in terms of the pricing of services it’s definitely something I feel we’re behind the curve on in terms of we should be charging more than we are at each stage if you know what I mean. So, what’s kind of changed us the most is we start updating our processes, we update, and we get better as an agency. We charge a bit more and that’s how we’ve approached it so far. So, I think that’s been the key thing in terms of how we’ve added to our pricing just as we’ve grown. Changing the pricing to reflect that because the agency that I first was working at was a lot more established. They’ve been around for ten years, and they were charging X amount per hour. But, like obviously, when you first become a freelancer, you can’t charge that amount, so it’s kind of you charge a certain amount and then as you then become a team with more access to more tools, access to more skills, charge more in this leg in the office, I think that then the bringing up with that.
We’ve been in the blueprint training so within that range to it.
And within his toolbox within that, there is a forecasting tool to put in not only for employee productivity and capacity but also for operating costs of the agency and then the client retainers that you’ve got and working out like that. So, I’ve just used that and then also just kept an eye on that profitability and just and kind of how much we are making and just keeping a close eye on that each month and each quarter.
Nice, I’ll have to check that out.
Is good. I think a lot of that blueprint training stuff is heavily reliant on Google sheets as the basis and then they build their own. He partnered up with the guy who runs coding is for losers and he essentially is a whiz with Google sheets so they’ve created the whole system around that essentially which is good because like you said, it does all the heavy lifting. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel and it works well.
We have got six based in the UK and then a couple of sort of freelancers and gig economy people as and when we need them.
Just the good ones. I think that’s been the hardest part. I think not only finding the right people but getting the most out of those people. For me, it opened my eyes that were two books and one of them was called Reinventing Organizations.
Perfect. But essentially for that, he describes these organizations that are called teal organizations that he colors the organizations in red would be, say, your military organization. You know you don’t have a say unless you’re at the top, and then the levels go down. Whereas these teal organizations, which are these kinds of new organizations, and one he uses as the main example in there is Patagonia. There are a couple of others from different industries. But essentially, the aim is to have a purpose-driven organization where everyone has a say, people are involved, almost like an open-source company kind of thing. In some of the examples in there, the employees get to choose their salaries, which we have not implemented. The outlines of it and the way the company does it are that within the team, someone puts forward a request on why they think they should get the pay rise. The team decides essentially and kind of like on that basis. So, having read that and then the Patagonia book as well.
I think it’s called Let My People Surf or Let My People Go Surfing by the CEO of Patagonia. That is a good circle, it’s a good book, and I think with that again, I think just trying to create a company that isn’t your stereotypical old school company of we don’t trust you to do the work, employees do the bare minimum, and then they clock off, and you know, that kind of vibe. It’s like you’re trying to create an environment that is trusting. A modern company, which is you see a lot of agencies now where it’s like you can work from anywhere, flexible with the holiday, flexible with time off and working schedule and stuff. So, I think that’s been from a company point of view, the key part and then I think from myself, is because we are a small team, I think me being very hands-on with the management and the involvement in helping those people progress, I think that’s been a key part. The first employee that I hired, a very stereotypical mistake in kind of high performance and they come in; they were gonna fix on what problems. It doesn’t happen. You know, they need to be managed, they need to be helped, supported and mentored. And that is, I think, something that I’ve tried to work with them on and just the show support it, that’s the key. To the people who have left over the last couple of years who didn’t stay for a year. I think some of them I didn’t support correctly, and some of them moved on to a new place for a new challenge. But again, it’s my fault for not figuring out what they wanted and whatever you to try and get them to that. So yeah, I think the key thing is just being, I know it’s the work environment, but being there for them is being open, it’s being caring, being a coach and friend, whatever they need to help them the healthy way and what he says in that reinventing organizations is that the old school method was where you put this mask on, you pretend everything’s okay, even if you have to have problems at home, for example. The stuff at home impacts your work. So I think that’s what I’ve tried to do a lot more.
Yeah. I’ve become quite well-positioned to talk about this. When I first started the agency, I had a terrible work-life balance. I relied quite heavily on alcohol, and that side of things wasn’t great. I sort of went to go and see a therapist because I thought I had a work stress problem, but it was the stuff I was doing in the evenings and the weekends and drinking heavily, and that was impacting the work and stressing me out more. So, it got pretty bad, I think, and kind of a low. Now it’s nearly two years of not drinking alcohol and kind of have swapped it. Even now I pick up some habits in terms of like I might be, you know, now not drinking, I might eat some more junk food, or I might indulge in certain things. And it’s just, I think being more aware of what is happening in my life, if there’s stuff going on in my personal life, then it’s going to impact my work life as well. Work is stressful. Maybe not do too many weekend plans. Therapies helped massively, going to therapy helped me step back and kind of put a bit of a barrier between the stuff that’s going on and what’s happening. So yeah, it’s still a constant work-life balance thing. But I think for me, it is finding that issue and taking it out early.
Same in UK
A good point about the working hours. Since after getting a dog, it’s sort of like I’ll walk him for an hour in the morning, I walk for an hour in the evening, and that will be my start of the day. I walk him, and I’ll do my work day, then finish the day with that as well. It’s not where I sort of live. It’s like a nice kind of forest area outside of London, and it’s again the same thing. I’ll leave my phone in the car when I go to walk him, and then it’s nice just to switch it off for the day. So, I just jump for a jog.
Yeah, that’s a good thing to do.
Yeah, nothing is a good shot because I think the key thing is that before I got the dog, I would read for an hour in the morning and then I would read for an hour in the evening. So now I’ve lost that a bit. So, I think that would be a nice way to go.
Yeah, exactly. Both of them together. Problem solved.
Yeah, definitely. I think the best place to sort of follow along with what I’m up to from a business point of view is to follow me on LinkedIn. So, Stephen White Director of Spaced Digital.
It’s a very common name, Stephen White. So, you have to transfer it to find the Blue Man.
That sounds good. All right. I’m going to see that as well.
Thanks very much for having me.
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