Growing Your Small SEM Firm

Feb 28, 2008 - 3:14 pm 0 by
Filed Under SMX West 2008

Session Summary

You're getting -- or want to get -- more business than your small SEM firm can handle. Do you scale up by hiring more people? If so, what trade-offs do you face, and how do you scale successfully? These issues and more are explored during this panel.

Moderator / Speakers

Chris Elwell, President of Third Door Media, is moderating this session along with Dana Todd, Chief Marketing Officer for Newsforce, who is moderating the Q&A portion. Speaking is Fionn Downhill, CEO of Elixir Systems, Damian Finley, Managing Director at Epiar, and Lisa A. Wiliams, Owner & Project Manager of MEDIA Forte Marketing.

Chris introduces session stating that it is a very difficult session for the panelists as they will be bearing their souls in relation to their businesses. This session is more of a series of questions rather than speakers making formal presentations. Therefore I am going to try my best to recapture that in this post.

Was your growth intentional or were you a victim of your own talents?
What was the opportunity you identified in SEM? Do you assume growth is necessary?
Is growth intrinsically "good" and "necessary" or is lifestyle more important?

Damian - Tried to focus on growth and it did not work. They were not well know but once they started to get some initial success with clients, then things started to happen. They finally figured it will happen when it happens and they are seeing moderate but steady growth.

Lisa - Initial motivation is that she wanted to make a good living but on her terms due to family responsibilities. She talks about defining who you are and what you will offer to your clients. So seeing the need and being excited about customer success.

Fionn (pronounced 'fin') - She wants to get rich (laughs). After raising her children and having an initial career outside SEM, she started doing small business consulting. Her husband was an SEO optimizing for Alta Vista (when they were on the top). That evolved into the growing business they have today. Even with a well written business plan, she found it difficult to grow.

Who is you most important employee or contractor?
Who is your most valuable outside professional you've engaged?
Who has been your most influential mentor or role model?

Fionn - Husband was key to getting established. As for outside help - her attorney. Helped her with contracts and keeping her on the straight and narrow. As for mentor - an organization named "Score."

Damian - As for contractor, the company's co-founder, Bob, as he ha the vision to get involved in SEO. As for outside help - their accountant whose background is helping small business grow.

Lisa - Most valuable contractor is a designer who Lisa refused to name as she does not want to lose her. Their designer has been invaluable due to her understanding of web design and usability. Outside group - the attorney and accountant pieces. Lisa's mentor is her father who owns an offline business and can sell just about anything. He taught her to treat her clients so well, they'd never leave.

Questions From Audience:

- In terms of growth, when did you feel it necessary to incorporate a sales team and how do you keep contactors?

Lisa - Asks contractors what their expectations are. Approaches clients the same way.

Fionn - Stick to your terms when dealing with clients.

Damian - Finding good sales person was very difficult initially. Ken Jurina, their president still does many sales. As for contractors, some former employees became contractors who wanted to work from their homes.

Who do you hire (e.g., college grads, some experience, work at home moms)?
What positions do you hire versus outsource?
What retention tools do you use for hires?

Damian - Shortage in labor in Alberta, especially labor that has knowledge in SEO. They have had to train their own people. They draw some employees because of the company's prominence. They try to hire for account managers and strategy positions. Outsource content developers and copywriters. They also outsource public relations. As for retention tools, flexible time, the ability to work from home are some options they have offered. Also offers commission structure on sales ad doing some profit sharing.

Lisa - SEMpdx (Oregon based SEM trade group) has been a fantastic way for them to get employees and contractors.

Fionn - Hiring has been a nightmare. Opportunities to take on a lot of new business have put pressure to hire quickly. She advises to hire slow and fire fast. She no longer hires people with experience but rather college grads and train them through SEMPO Institute training and in-house training. Grads are interns with possibility to become permanent. They outsource content writing.

Questions From Audience:

- What kinds of attorneys do you use and what budget do you allocate towards them?

Fionn - Find attorneys that will work on hourly rates rather than monthly retainers. Suggest a corporate attorney.

 - How do you keep a fun, loose environment and yet keep strict work guidelines?

Damian - Started off with relaxed fun atmosphere but once they started to get clients, enforced dress code which brought a bit of resistance. They still do fun things like online gaming, movies or barbeques. Cell phones have been a big problem. They would rather phone be turned off.

Fionn - They have to be very structured. Some can't handle boss being all friendly but need structure to be productive. Doesn't allow playing around with IM, social media, etc. Have to stay focused and structured.

What's your competitive advantage and how do you communicate it?
How do you decide what products/services to offer?
What payment model do you use and why (e,g., retainer, performance, hourly)?

Lisa - One of their competitive advantaged is that they listen to client's goals first before laying out any pricing. What they offer is also based off client's needs. They sell that they want to be a "partner" with them in their project. One option is that they offer performance pricing.

Damian - Competitive advantage is transparency of services. They have some proprietary software that gives them and advantage in what they can offer. Don't try to be all things to all people. Outsource services that are not your strength. They have tried all sorts of payment options. They have settled on a "fee for services" model.

Fionn - Transparency is very important to her company. Everything is clearly defined in contracts.  Customer service is given very special attention. As far as products offered - based on client's goals. Might be SEO only or a combination of things. Payment model is based on hourly rate. Initial cost (set up) and then monthly retainer based on what they are actually providing. They also offer some hourly consulting, especially with teaching people how to run their PPC campaigns.

In Marketing -

What's most effective?
What hasn't worked?
What are you most enthusiastic about trying next?

Fionn - Building reputation and earning referrals and word of mouth are most effective ways of marketing for them. Running tight ship, writing for popular sites, SEMPO membership, speaking at conference, etc. What hasn't worked - PPC and relying on natural rankings. Leads from natural rankings have not panned out well for them. Currently Fionn is excited about a re-branding process they are going through right now.

Damian - Most effective is client referrals as well as industry referrals. Their SEMPO membership has brought them good referrals. What hasn't worked is PPC and Yellow Pages. Both are very costly with little return. Excited about presenting in conferences outside of search. That has been productive for them.

Lisa - LinkedIn has been good for them. Utilizing the recommendations feature has been effective. They also had success with direct mail offering a white paper.

What behaviors have you adopted/changed now that you're the boss?
How do you avoid the extremes.. myopia and distraction?
How did you transition from employee to owner  (i.e., from self employed to leader)?

Fionn - She is a doer so has difficulty not being a micro-manager. In other words, don't try to do their job for them. She mentions that there are many distractions she is trying to get rid of (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, etc.).

Damian - Make sure you reward employees for trusted relationships. As for avoiding distractions - don't worry about following everything in the industry. Remember when you were an employee and treat current employees with respect.

Lisa - Initially didn't use project management tools as she worked alone. But once she had employees, she embraced project management tools and made sure she used them to benefit client projects.

David Wallace - CEO and Founder SearchRank.


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