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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Knowing a basic scripting language wouldn’t kill you, either.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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:
- Growing the business, by finding new clients and building credibility in the industry.
- 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.
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!