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Leaving the Agency Life & Becoming an In-House SEO

The title really says it all.

After almost 11 years at Regal (small digital agency we started back in 2007), my business partner and I decided it was time to hang things up and shut things down.

To be honest, I’ve learned a lot over the years. We started that business with absolutely no knowledge or experience in running something that would become a primary source of income for both ourselves and our team. We also had very entry-level experience with doing the work we were pitching to our prospective clients.

At the time, our business model was “cheap and fast, we’ll get ’em with quantity”. Literally, we sold 5 page websites for $250 thinking that it would take an hour to comp and code a page…so it was easy math.

Or so we thought.

Little did we know, so much more goes into planning, creating, launching and supporting the work we set out to do. Honestly, we didn’t really care (about how much work it was), as we were young and ignorantly excited about the idea of “being our own boss”.

But, over the last 11 years, 8 employees, 18 hour launch days, and a lot of financial and emotional stress (both good and bad), here are the top things I’ve learned from it all:

1. Brutal Accountability

Accountability is easy and hard, all at the same time. It’s actually very easy to take blame and dish it, but it’s hard to hold yourself and your counterparts accountable on the same level.

Much of doing that really comes down to setting up the relationship and expectations in the right way, right away.

We did not do this for quite a long time and, even when we finally started to, it didn’t always work out. But being brutally honest and holding yourself and others accountable to the relationship—regardless of the scope—was something I found to be critical to the success and outcomes; both in terms of our deliverables, as well as the happiness and longevity of the relationship with our clients.

If I were to do it all over again, I would take the confidence and no-bullshit approach I have now, into every engagement straight out of the gates.

This doesn’t mean you should be a jerk, but it also doesn’t mean that you need to bend over backwards at every demand that’s thrown at you.

2. Mentorship is Key

As I said above, we went into it with absolutely no knowledge and experience.

As I look back at it all, I strongly believe that being humble in where you are and what you know, and finding one or a few really strong mentors who are invested in you—personally and professionally—is so key.

There are so many challenges and roadblocks we faced along the way that I believe we could have easily avoided if we had an objective third party in the mix to help guide us through them.

Which leads me to my next learning…

3. Find the Right Partner(s)

Unless you’re going at it alone—and even then, really—you need to find the right partner(s).

In the beginning, the goings were good. My business partner and I were really good friends from high school; heck, he was a groomsman in my wedding. And boy were we excited about what we were going to build together.

But, even from the beginning, he said his ideal world was being his own boss, not having to answer to anyone or anything, besides himself. And, the way I interpreted that was, anyone or anything that didn’t include me or the business.

I was naive and ignorant. It was both our first times doing this sort of thing, so who wouldn’t be.

But looking back, for the purpose of growing a super healthy, sustainable service-based business, we were not the right partners for each other.

So many companies start with an engineer and a marketer. Someone who builds the product or delivers the core service, and someone who sells it. That’s how we were structured also, and it turned out to be just one out of a few thorns in our side down the road.

So, if I were to do this again with a new partner or set of partners, I would make clear from day one what the goals are for everyone, both personally (most importantly), and professionally.

4. Never Split the Difference

I read—well, listened to—a book on negotiation called “Never Split the Difference“.

It was a book by an ex-FBI negotiator who used life lessons, professionally and personally, along with lessons from students whom he taught at university, to impress upon me the reader why splitting the difference in a negotiation is never the right way to go.

For his job in the FBI, it meant compromising hostages. A big no-no when dealing with criminals.

For me, I think about the idea of “never splitting the difference” with how my partner and I decided to structure our business. It was an even 50:50 split in terms of how we put time and effort into the business, how we drew money out of it, and—most importantly—how we came to decisions on matters both of little and much importance.

This last one—how we came to decisions—was one of the major pitfalls in how we decided to do things. I personally believe that mentorship could have helped tip the balance one way or another (which is often much needed in a situation like ours), but like I said, we didn’t have anyone who we could trust or that was invested in us as people and a company.

The issue we ran into with doing a 50:50 split was that we both had to say “yes” in order to move forward.

That meant that if one of us disagreed with the other, nothing could happen, and the only way to move forward was for one person to give in, or for one person to lobby hard for their side so that the other would give in—often out of exhaustion from the negotiation.

So, needless to say, the process of having either a no-go outcome, or a lobby-hard and fold outcome led to a lot of pent up angst, largely because we also stopped talking to each other outside of daily tasks within the business.

All of this is not good, and so having someone to tip the scale (mentor, minority partner, etc.), is something I really wish we had.

5. Communication is King

This transcends to all aspects of life.

If you don’t know how to communicate, you are ultimately going to fail, winding up angered, sad or alone.

For us, we had issues properly communicating with our clients. We also had issues communicating between ourselves. This led to a lot of passive aggressiveness, divisiveness amongst employees, stress and tension—all of which ultimately killed our passion and desire to keep things going.

At one point, because of issues we were having involving employees and our leadership, we ended up seeking a coach (professional therapist), at my request. It was actually an incredible move that I wish would have been done sooner.

Unfortunately, it was too little too late, as the direction our boat was pointing in was already turned towards what would be our timely end.

If I would have known up front the road we were going down, I would have done things much differently.

But, hindsight is always much clearer than when you’re in the moment.

So here I am.

Looking Forward

It’s all good.

Honestly, as hard as it was to tell our clients we were closing (which, admittedly, was not handled in the best way), as well as our team (which was actually the hardest part), the decisions was for the best.

My stress levels have decreased significantly.

My financial position has improved significantly (because #entrepreneurism, am I right?).

And I’m finally in a working environment which exudes positivity and works towards a common goal that is greater than that of just one person.

Things are finally on the up and up, and I’ve got a lot of experiences and changes in perspective to lean back on for my continued growth (and I’ve always got room to grow, as we all do).

I’m excited about what the future brings. And I hope you are also.

Cheers!

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