20 must-haves for your new SEO business

Ian Lurie

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So, you’re heading on your own as an SEO consultant. Welcome to our weird little club!

Before you start, you might want to make sure you’ve got:

  1. Knowledge. I really, really hope I don’t have to point this out. But you need strong knowledge of SEO: Far more than you can get in a few months at an SEO shop or from a single book. Work at an SEO company, or in-house with a good mentor, for at least a year. Two would be better. Four would be great. Or, learn the hard way by building and optimizing your own sites. Attendance at good learning events like MozCon, SEMPDX and Pubcon are all a must, too. Remember, you’re going to be paid for your expertise. Make sure clients get their money’s worth.
  2. Ambition. This list isn’t for folks who are ‘finding work’. That’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do. But this post is for folks who really want to build a business. That requires ambition beyond making a living—a strong drive to build something of lasting value is required.
  3. A very basic logo or logotype. Silly, I know, but having some form of identity will go a long way towards your credibility. You can get a great logo design from 99Designs or (better) from a local designer.
  4. Real business cards. Get a quick set of business cards from TinyPrints or a similar site. Cards you print from your ink jet printer will look like, well, cards you printed on your ink jet printer. Go with the real thing. It’s another subtle cue that you’re for real. Superficial? Yes. Welcome to business.
  5. Basic bookkeeping skills. If you can’t balance a checkbook, you’d better either learn or hire someone else to handle it for you. Business is much more fun if you spend less than you earn.
  6. A mentor. Find someone with experience running a business. They don’t have to be an SEO (although it can’t hurt). Ply them with lunches or other bribery, and see if they’re willing to meet with you once a month to advise. I would not have survived my first 6 years in business without great advice from lots of smart people.
  7. Someplace to store lots of little chunks of information. I like Evernote. You can use anything you like – just make sure you can store links, notes, tidbits of information and anything else you might need to recover later. I’m always going back and finding an old blog post or snippet of an article or idea that solves a new puzzle.
  8. A time management strategy. I’ve written about time management before. Follow my advice, or read Getting Things Done, or something else. Whatever works for you. Just have a strategy.
  9. A feel for client communications. The first time I did an SEO review with a client, I said brilliant things like “Oh, man, this is bad.” Guess what? Clients prefer a little more tact. I know—hilarious hearing this from me—but it’s true. Make sure you know how to talk to clients, and how to do so without giving them heart attacks.
  10. Networking skills. This remains my biggest weakness, even sixteen years later. When you start out, you’ll need to build a network—that means meeting a lot of people. The best way to do that is often at ‘networking events,’ also known as ‘middle school replays,’ where you’re cast adrift between little knots of people who know each other. Your job? Find a way into those knots. It takes practice. Knowing someone who can introduce you around helps, too. You’re going to need to stick with this for a while. I hated these events, but some of my most valuable business relationships started there.
  11. A calendar. Make sure you know the next few networking events in your area. Mix SEO-related and non-SEO events. The industry events will help you get to know the community. The non-SEO events will help you find clients.
  12. A good site crawling tool. Start with Screaming Frog, which is inexpensive super-versatile. Learn to use it with some of Distilled’s excellent posts on the subject.
  13. A link graph database. Pay for a subscription to MajesticSEO or SEOMOZ’s Open Site Explorer. Either one is easily worth it. Both is even better. They give you a good snapshot of a site’s link-based authority.
  14. A reporting toolset. Microsoft Excel or Google Docs both work just fine for this. You’ll want to create a library of templates, though, so that you can standardize some forms of reporting. You can also use Google Spreadsheets as a web scraper (I seem to keep linking to Distilled. Why is that?) I’ve got a decent automated solution you can get here.
  15. Strong knowledge of Google Analytics or another major analytics package. Most of your first clients will likely be on Google Analytics or something similar. You need to have a solid understanding of web analytics if you’re going to be an SEO. I strongly recommend reading Avinash Kaushik’s Web Analytics: An Hour a Day.
  16. Don’t restrict your learning to SEO: You need a strong understanding of social media and general marketing, too. There are just some skills you must always be learning. Make sure you learn ’em.
  17. Knowing a basic scripting language wouldn’t kill you, either.
  18. A keyword mining tool. There are so many I’ve lost count, but I like SEMRush, because it gives me basic keyword mining and competitive analysis in a single toolset. I also love WordTracker, KeywordDiscovery and Wordze.
  19. A method. You could do a lot worse than reading Mike King’s post on SEO Process. Your process can (and will) change all the time. But you still need one to describe to your clients.
  20. A client. Clients pay money. Money pays rent and food and electrical bills and stuff. Without clients, you’ve got nothing. So ideally, the day you launch your new business, try to have that first client already on tap. It could be a former employer (that’s how I started), a contact or someone you’ve known for years. Just have something to get you started. Until you have a client, you’re not a business. You’re a man/woman with some business cards. This sounds harsh. I don’t mean it to be. But I’m a risk-averse person: It’s a lot easier to start a consulting business with that first client already lined up.

Is this a lot of stuff? Yes. But chances are you already have most of it, or you wouldn’t be considering going out on your own. Also, I’m still learning/re-learning/reinforcing a lot of these skills myself. Don’t assume there’s ever ‘enough knowledge’. You’ll keep working at it throughout your career.

A note about time

As someone starting a one-person SEO shop, you have two major jobs:

  1. Growing the business, by finding new clients and building credibility in the industry.
  2. Maintaining the business, by serving clients, paying bills and such.

You’ll want to split your time, with at least 25% of your time on growing the business. Never stop growing the business! If you do, you’ll find yourself with no clients and no business pipeline. Spend that 25% blogging, networking, meeting people and the like.

Enjoy it!

I know, after this huge list you’re terrified. This is complicated stuff!

But it’s worth it. Next to being a father and husband, building my company has been the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life. Working and building your own enterprise, no matter how big or small, is a huge, addicting rush that you never get over. I still get it all the time. So good luck!

Ian Lurie

Ian Lurie is founder of Portent. He's been a digital marketer since the days of AOL and Compuserve (25 years, if you're counting). Ian's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Smashing Magazine, and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, Seattle Interactive Conference and ad:Tech. He has published several books about business and marketing: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle, The Web Marketing All-In-One Desk Reference for Dummies, and Conversation Marketing. Ian is now an independent consultant and continues to work with the Portent team- training the agency group on all things digital. You can find him at www.ianlurie.com

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  1. Great post IAN.
    #1 is something many people need to look into. I personally know around 3 people who really has no idea about how to get even a page #10 ranking for moderately competitive keyword and yet they call themselves SEO consultants.
    Funny as it may sound, I actually asked one guy why he’s taking on SEO clients and how he got them in the first place.
    Getting clients is pretty easy it seems. Bid lowest on freelancing sites like odesk, elance etc and you get a gig.
    Why- It seems taking on clients is the best way to learn! Right. Burning your clients money to advance your knowledge is such an awesome way to get started!

  2. Hi Ian, that’s and useful list to take into account while starting a business.
    Just one thought, on number 13 (link graph database), have you had any experience working with ahrefs.com? Do you see it as an viable alternative of OSE and Majestic? I’ve just tested it from a couple of days and was planning to get a subscription, and now that I read your post I just wanted to know if you’ve had any thoughts on it πŸ™‚
    Also, on number 15 (Google Analytics knowledge), do you think that having the individual Analytics certification would also help to build some trust initially with potential clients?

    1. Hi Alexander,
      Just trying out ahrefs now, so I’m not sure. Their database seems smaller but their toolset is excellent.
      I do think having an analytics certification is helpful. If nothing else, studying to pass the exam is a great way to learn.

  3. Great Great Post! But you did not mention PPC or Social Media! Building your own personal brand I think is crucial. YOU NEED A BLOG! I think it is imperative if you go out on your own to build a following. Twitter and other social media tools are also going to be very valuable when building your brand and business.
    Anyways, I loved the post! The information is a must even if your not “going out on your own” and you still work the 9-5 SEO Job (That’s Me!)
    Now that I have said that I need to continue practicing what I preach and finish building my blog =P I have been saying it was launching soon for the past month lol!
    Thanks again for the awesome post!

  4. Hello Ian,
    Nice post. I recently worked at an agency doing SEO and am now in house, but it was still a great recap.
    Re: #15
    Avinash recently released Web Analytics 2.0, it is an updated and improved version of the One Hour a Day book and I’ve found it to be one of the most useful books I’ve ever bought.
    He’s also a great speaker at industry events. I always leave jazzed up after hearing him speak.
    Would love to meet you at an event sometime, but living in Southern Ontario I don’t get to the events like MozCon, SEMPDX and Pubcon.

  5. Ian,
    This is great advice for any small business owner, not only for ab SEO business. Lead generation, customer care, book keeping, all the things that are not SEO will have a big effect on whether your business succeeds or not. E-myth revisited is a decent book to read.

  6. Hey Ian, this is such a needed piece of content.
    I’m really glad you pointed this out :
    A note about time
    As someone starting a one-person SEO shop, you have two major jobs:
    1) Growing the business, by finding new clients and building credibility in the industry.
    2) Maintaining the business, by serving clients, paying bills and such.
    You’ll want to split your time, with at least 25% of your time on growing the business.
    I find that to be the most difficult part. It’s like a roller coaster of new client -> get to work -> done -> need more clients!!! repeat.
    Are you mostly focused now on #2? blogging, client relations, onboarding new clients, etc?
    How much time do you spend working on current client work?
    ps. I found the E-Myth to be really insightful & helpful in getting out of the roller coaster lifestyle of new clients vs current work commitments

  7. Thanks, Ian – fast and informative. The next step after that first client, is a marketing plan. How will you get more clients?
    I like to search craigslist, send email updates to friends and associates (asking for leads of course), and my website.

  8. Solid tips here – love the tip on finding a mentor! Even if they are a peer in the industry you can always gain additional insights & short cuts. Even if you just need to bounce questions around and settle some uncertainties, a mentor is great.
    Good time management is also paramount!
    Oh & tip 20 is absolutely profound πŸ˜‰

  9. Hi Ian, great post!
    To your #2 ambition, I would add “Passion”, which includes a sincere committment to and partnering with each client to ensure success for their business, beyond the SEO. Once you get them the traffic, clients have to know what to do with it.

  10. Ian,
    You hit the nail on the head at the bottom of the post.
    You always need to be looking for new clients no matter what. I think everyone has fallen into the false sense of reality that they have enough customers, until they realize they don’t.
    Oh, and one thing I would have added – Have a Great Story. Even if you are new or starting out, you can still craft a great story of ambition and creativity.
    Chris Hamilton

  11. Great article on getting started in SEO. It’s one of those roles that seems to be be popping up all over the place. I know of at least one local company that jumped on the bandwagon a couple of years ago and started charging local businesses for “Google Places Optimization” – great idea, if they were actually doing something. They charged a $250 setup and $35 / month to ‘optimize’ the page. Their idea of optimization was to look at the page and make sure it was still live – they weren’t doing anything for the clients.
    I just finished working with one of their previous clients who had been with them for about a year and a half paying the monthly fee and had never heard from them. They didn’t receive any reports and their listing had no updates done to it.
    I do place some blame on the client for not educating themselves but more and more it seems that companies are getting ripped off by so-called SEO experts that really aren’t doing anything.
    Thank you for such a great list and article. Keep it up.

  12. Great Post. A lot of excellent tips for people wanting to start an SEO consultancy or small business that offers online marketing. I would like to add #21 Start a blog. Tell your story; explain your pain, why your starting the business (Debt, loss of career, new opportunity). Then document your success and failures of the journey. If you blog about what you learn, as you learn it – You can build a brand and become an expert. Your own blog is alos a great way to test traffic driving and SEO strategies. thanks!

  13. Solid list for budding consultants.
    However, I think you’re massively under emphasizing the importance of learning some basic accounting and finance principles.
    Knowing the difference between profit and cash, tax planning and understanding that the company’s money is not your money, is all knowledge that people are not born with… and if they start a business without, wind up learning the hard way.
    Get a solid grasp of finance as early as possible and it will re pay your investment (about Β£10 for a book, and a couple of hours’ of your time) a thousand fold… or million fold — if you’re really lucky πŸ˜€

  14. I’m sorry Ian, but how can you expect to be taken seriously for SEO when you outright devalue the work of another profession by recommending someone go to 99Designs for their logo?
    That’s just like saying go to a web designer for your SEO – they might do a bit of ‘onpage’ SEO but probably have no idea about proper link-building and keyword research.
    Whatever argument you would give for someone using your SEO services above someone without SEO skills can be applied to someone creating a mediocre piece of ‘clipart’ vs someone professionally trained designing a unique and specific logo mark tailored to a brand. Please, have some respect!

    1. Sean,
      Every time I go to 99Designs I think about that, and the fact that it’s spec work. But I pay a premium – I don’t use 99Designs as a discount house. Like any marketplace, you can get out of it what you’re willing to put in.
      That’s part of why I put so much of the onus on SEO clients to use good judgment. There are a lot of great SEOs out there, but you have to be willing to put in the effort to find them. Same goes for design: You can use a site like 99Designs to reward exceptional designers, or you can use it to buy crap. You have to decide which to do.

  15. Great post! I just wanted to jump in and and say the list you provided is dead on. The first 10 clients are always the hardest, but it gets easier after as you will start to get referrals. Just remember not to quit, personally I almost quit more times than I’d like to admit. My mentor once told me that most people quit right before they were about to make it. I think there is a lot of truth in that, it was evident in my own experience. Just remember, you only get what you put in. Don’t quit, keep your head high, and celebrate the small acomplishments.
    Hope this helps anyone starting out. Best of luck to those reading.

  16. That’s a great post, I wish I’d had something similar when starting out in 2003. I would add the more you can build recurring business with a core of loyal clients, the easier things will be. To do this you’ll need to be passionate about helping them grow their business, and skilled in associating your SEO work with their bottom line.
    How about a follow-up post on how to approach growing beyond being a one-man business, or on the joys of committing to always remain a one-man business?

  17. Amen to #2.
    In 2011, I left a comfy salaried marketing job to start an S-Corp. I thought I was ready to build a business. I eventually, painfully, thankfully realized that what I really wanted was simply “to find work.”
    I’ve since become a freelancer. Not only do I pocket more money, I also manage to go entire days without thinking of ways to murder people.
    Lots of the advice in the list above applies to us “mere” freelancers, but realizing the difference between selling work and building a business is critical for success and sanity.

  18. Great list! I wish #1 was a given, but sadly it’s not! That’s why many people have such a bad perception of SEO professionals.

  19. Good list Ian. I recommend investing time in understanding the technical side of SEO thoroughly as well. It’s very good to know if it’s possible to tackle problem A within CMS system B and if it’s possible, what amount of time a developer would need to do that. Everyone can throw his/her advice at a client but the real challenge is in getting the advise implemented as you advised it and having a satisfied client after all is done πŸ™‚
    PS: 99designs.com can be great for getting good logo designs. You get what you pay for and if you give good feedback you get good results.

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