Starting Your Own Business in Digital – Advice from 10 Brand New SEO Entrepreneurs


Hey!

People often ask me why haven’t I started my own agency yet – why do I only do some freelance gigs on side of my main job.

Also, recently a lot of big name (and slightly smaller name – composed of less letters or thinner ones, like ‘i’ or ‘l’ as compared to ‘w’ or ‘m’) went freelance or started new companies (so called startups).

I wanted to find out what drives them towards these decisions and how they’re getting on. This is in a way follow up to my Q&A on starting your own business with 14 established SEO experts.

Below are their answers to my set of questions – please do feel free to post questions in comments I’ll pass them on to a particular person – if you’re interested to know more.

Also – I follow all these guys on Twitter – they share great advice on regular basis so I strongly suggest you follow them too. It’s a steady stream of good information on all things digital.

In order of responses received:

 

Matthew Platt

Matthew Platt is an Independent Consultant working mainly with digital agencies, has an awful taste in shirts and is currently recovering from a doughnut addiction. Tweet him at @1matthewplatt (but please don’t mention the doughnuts).

Q1: Why did you decide to start your own business, what was the driving force behind it?

Deciding to go it alone for me it was all about making a difference, I am now able to take a real hands on approach and do things my way, where I might have been limited before. Also time is a big thing when I was running an agency I had so little free time and having 2 young boys and family time is very important to me. I can plan my work and know when I have free time with my family.

Q2: Did you prepare or did you just dive in? Previously I’ve done a collaborative interview and something often mentioned by more matured business owners was having money put aside.

I personally took a risk I left a good position and a good business, I had put nothing aside and had not pitched for any work! So you could say I dived in blindfolded not knowing when I would hit the water.
[Tweet “So you could say I dived in blindfolded not knowing when I would hit the water.”]

However this risk was not a spur of the moment thing I had a decision to make I consulted my family and my wife and knew I would have their support should things not go to plan,

Q3: What was the biggest fear before you started up?

Not getting any work, or not getting enough work to pay the bills, the fear that you would be taking a big step backwards after years of hard work, I am not the only SEO in the world doing what I do so it makes you wonder if the demand for your service is there, a bit of research clears this up the demand for freelancers and consultants is very high in our field.

I put this down to the results promising, snake oil selling, magic wand waving B**tards that give us a bad name.
[Tweet “I put this down to the results promising, snake oil selling, magic wand waving B**tards that give us a bad name.”]

Q4: How did you overcome it?

I took on lots of small jobs through sites like freelancer and people per hour I felt like an SEO Whore! I was literally picking up everything I could to make sure the bills were paid, I then started to use social media and friends in recruitment to build relationships within my niche, and this led to me picking up larger consultancy type jobs. Make friends online they will help you when you need it!
[Tweet “Make friends online they will help you when you need it!”]

Q5: What is the biggest barrier you’re facing now?

Now I am facing the barrier of making sure I don’t over face myself by taking on too much work, its all well and good pitching to win all the work, but if you can’t fulfil it your reputation is at stake, “A good reputation is more valuable than money”. “Publilius Syrus”
[Tweet “A good reputation is more valuable than money. -Publilius Syrus- “]

Q6: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

I really want to keep perfecting my art, my plans are to keep it simple for a year nothing to elaborate and grow my circle of friends in the industry and start to grow my own reputation. I will most likely aim to start up a new agency in the next few years. And now I will finally get round to all the little side projects I was never able to complete previously, and actually get my own blog back up and running not worrying about what opinions are expressed.

Q7: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

You have to be very self-motivated it’s very easy to stray from your work if you’re at home especially in the early days, it’s easy to waste 3 hours playing Fifa or an hour watching Jeremy Kyle without even realising, I would say put yourself out of your comfort zone find a desk somewhere to work from or a friend who has a spare one in their office, you need to feel like you are at work and not at home.

TOP TIP: don’t sit in costa coffee all day it costs a fortune and the wifi isn’t great you can find some really cheap desks in your area to rent using sites like sharemyoffice.co.uk I found one in the centre of Manchester for £200 per month, better value than 3 daily coffees and slow wifi.

Q8: Any last notes/advice for someone planning to start their own business?

Make sure you put 30% of your earnings to one side, you’re going to need it when the tax man comes knocking and also don’t be fooled by your first national insurance bill as a sole trader the real one comes later, if you put 30% away its probably more than you need but you know your covered and will get a nice little bonus when you’ve paid the tax man. Better to have some leftover than needing to find some to keep the tax man happy.

I would also say plan your time well, dedicate certain time frames to certain activities. I read a really good blog recently about freelancing https://www.submarinecrm.com/blog/freelancing.

Joel Klettke

Joel Klettke is a copywriter for hire who spent his early twenties arm wrestling Google at a digital agency. Now, he helps smart brands create even smarter content. If you loathe bullcrap and have the stomach for a bit of sarcastic humour, you can find him bashing a keyboard on Twitter.

Q1: Why did you decide to start your own business, what was the driving force behind it?

I had a history of starting my own gigs, but had found myself in a comfortable job (SEO at a digital firm) with friends and a boss I liked. That said, the work itself just wasn’t what I was passionate about any more, and I found myself starting to get jaded about it. At the same time, I saw huge increases in demand for well-written content. I knew there was an opportunity to step in and fill the gap, so I went for it.

Q2: Did you prepare or did you just dive in? Previously I’ve done a collaborative interview and something often mentioned by more matured business owners was having money put aside.

I prepared. While working at my existing job, I ramped up my part-time work on the side, knowing that I’d need a network of people to support me when I made the leap.

I had a safety net of cash I knew I could fall back on if things tanked – but because there’s virtually no overhead to the work I do, I didn’t need to save up a ton to invest in the business. My preparation was more just getting my name out there and building up a portfolio of work I could sell people on.

Q3: What was the biggest fear before you started up?

That I wouldn’t get enough work – and that the market of businesses who were willing to shell out the kind of money I needed to live on would be few and far between. Even with an existing list of clients, you always sort of wonder in the back of your head if you’re going to be a success. I had even told my girlfriend we may not be able to go out on dates as often, and stocked up on Kraft Dinner and canned goods like the apocalypse was coming.

[Tweet “Joel Klettke – I stocked up on Kraft Dinner and canned goods like the apocalypse was coming.”]

Thankfully, that hasn’t been the case.

Q4: How did you overcome it?

By putting in the work to set myself apart from the market. Other writers and freelancers make peanuts because they don’t invest in how they project themselves, and they don’t know how to approach businesses like a businessperson instead of a creative.

I networked my tail off, but I also invested a great deal in my web presence, my business cards and my branding – I needed to show that I was worth every penny of the rate I wanted to charge.

Q5: What is the biggest barrier you’re facing now?

Choosing where to specialize. I’ve been burned out by all of the writing I’ve done in just one vertical; my goal now is to try and get on retainer with a smaller number of businesses to ensure I’ve got steady, high-paying work that’s diverse.

I’m also suffering a bit of time starvation; I’m trying to spin up a second content-related service, and it’s challenging to do so while keeping my existing writing clients happy.

Q6: What are the plans for the future?

To land on retainer for a few big clients, and then invest my other energy into spinning up that content service I mentioned. I’m working to distance myself from the digital marketing sphere – at least, the writing I do on content marketing and SEO topics. I’m also planning to work abroad and travel, to try and enjoy the benefits of being able to work from anywhere.

Q7: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

You have to be willing to work harder for less money – at least in the beginning. I’ve put in 12-hour days for the past 9 months; you have to be willing to put in the sweat equity to make it happen. The shiny, plastic dream of being your own boss and making millions is nice, but what most people don’t talk about is all of the work and emotional battles it takes to get there.

If you’re imagining that working for yourself is going to be a picnic where you sit behind your desk in your underwear and money just flows in, you’ve got the wrong mentality. Come for the hard work, stay for the payout (when it comes).

Q8: Any last notes/advice for someone planning to start their own business?

Build a village. If you don’t have a network to draw from, it’s so much harder – not only to get business, but to stay emotionally sane. You need people you can confide in, people you can go to for advice, people who you can just tip a beer back with and not talk shop. If you try to go it alone – ALL alone, you’ll lose your mind.
[Tweet “If you try to go it alone – ALL alone, you’ll lose your mind.”]

Matthew Taylor

Matthew Taylor is the founder of 31 Digital Marketing. Based in Oxford, 31 was launched in 2013 to provide results driven, bespoke digital marketing campaigns to companies of all sizes. You can find him on Twitter as @matt_seo.

Q1: Why did you decide to start your own business, what was the driving force behind it?

There are so many reasons I decided to start my own business it’s hard to narrow it down to one thing.

The biggest motivator was the fact that I am ambitious and didn’t really feel like I could ever fulfil fully working for someone else. I always thought that no matter how well I did I would always be contributing to someone else’s success not my own.

Along with that was my desire to be able to control and shape something myself. I had a really great job in an agency with a lot of freedom, but at the end of the day I didn’t have free reign over everything. I tend to have strong opinions and really high standards and that doesn’t always work well when you don’t have ultimate control.

Also being honest, another key factor was that working for someone else limits your income to a certain extent. If you want to make very good money then you need to take on the risks. Another part to that is wanting to challenge yourself, part of me always wanted to see if I could do it.

The final reason was that it was a good time to do it. I had been in a good agency for almost 4 years and learnt loads, but it was time to move on. That coincided with being fairly secure with regards to money, mortgage, etc. If it all went wrong I would have lost a little bit of money and a lot of pride, but nothing else.

Q2: Did you prepare or did you just dive in? Previously I’ve done a collaborative interview and something often mentioned by more matured business owners was having money put aside.

I didn’t really prepare, which was a massive mistake! I felt I was busy in my job and didn’t really have the energy to come and do more work setting stuff up. In hindsight I should have just sucked it up and got on with it. On my first day I pretty much had to make my site (and my broadband connection went down!), although I was lucky enough to have one small client from the start.

If I did it again, I would really up my freelance work while I was still in a permanent role and get everything else lined up (contracts, accountants, software licenses, web site, business cards, etc.). You really need to find the time as it will get you most of the way to having a viable business from day 1. Trust me, sitting there with only one small client and no site is a very scary!
[Tweet ” Trust me, sitting there with only one small client and no site is a very scary!”]

From a money point of view, I was lucky enough to have enough to keep me going for 6 months without really earning anything. This was massive as it removed a lot of the stress. If you can save up, then do it. As a minimum, I would recommend having enough to cover all your own bills and your company’s bills for 3-4 months. If by that point you haven’t got enough work coming in, or in the pipeline, then you should really think if your business is going to work long term. Always have a cut-off date in your head.

Q3: What was the biggest fear before you started up?

Personally my main fear was failure, but not from a financial point of view.
When you start your own business you are putting your reputation on the line, everyone you know personally and professionally will know (or they should do). So if it doesn’t work out it is going to be very public.

On a more day-to-day basis, the main fear is around sales. Working for an agency we had a dedicated sales team and I while I was involved in sales pitches I didn’t do any lead generation. I really worried about where I would get leads from and if I would be able to close them (I had an ill-advised stint as an insurance salesman after uni which did not go well).

Q4: How did you overcome it?

Luckily a lot of people I know have really helped me out on the referral front. Friends, old colleagues, old contacts and clients regularly refer work my way and so it has made lead gen a lot easier. The important thing is that when you do get a referral you make sure that you get results. People who refer business are putting their reputation on the line to help you and so you need to make sure you don’t do anything to harm that.

I also got some great advice from a couple of my old bosses about places to go and people to meet and that has really paid dividends for me. I actively sort out web design/dev agencies and other marketing agencies and have done my best to create good relationships with them. By offering them a specialist skill they can then sell to their clients it essentially takes the sales burden off me a little bit and generates extra revenue for them. From experience most agencies could do with an extra service or pair of hands and so you want to make sure they come to you first.

Q5: What is the biggest barrier you’re facing now?

My biggest barrier at the moment is time management and scaling. I have been lucky to almost triple my turnover in the last three months. The flip side of that is that I am incredibly busy with client work while also trying to run a business and generate new sales. I hadn’t really appreciated how long things like meeting accountants and stuff like invoicing takes. It is a delicate balance between keeping my clients happy, expanding my business and making sure the lights stay on!

Thankfully, I am just about on the edge of being able to make a full time appointment, but that will also bring its own challenges.

The main things I have really needed to remember is to work what I have sold (it’s difficult not to get carried away and do more than you should), plan and prioritise my time effectively and that keeping on top of your finances is essential.

Q6: What are the plans for the future?

My short term plans are for growth. I have never wanted to be a one-man band and so I am looking to hire staff as soon as is sensibly possible.

My longer term plans are to make sure my eggs aren’t all in one basket. The digital marketing landscape shifts so much that you can never be entirely sure what is round the corner, or what Google will do next, and so I think it would be sensible to have a more diverse offering. The great thing is that there is plenty of overlap into other business areas and so there are lots of possible services to add or diversify into.

Q7: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

That’s a difficult question, the short answer is there are four things you need:

1. Appropriate skills

2. Passion for your business

3. Motivation to succeed

4. Resilience

The longer answer is that there are a lot of things that you need to be comfortable doing when you run a business. You can essentially split these into three areas.

Fairly obviously you need to have the core skills to provide your services, especially at the start. For the first few months when money is tight you aren’t necessarily going to be able to pay for skills you don’t have. You need a core set of skills which you can turn into a service or product.

The second area is around finding business. You need to be comfortable getting out there in front of people. A lot of business is done based on relationships and the best way to build them is in person. Potentially, you are going to have to stand in front of people and sell your services at networking events, you will have to pitch and you will have to negotiate on prices. This will be a lot of what you do and so you need to be happy doing it, at least in the short term.

The final area is knowing how to run a business. You will have to be familiar with stuff like invoicing, accounting, cash flow and budgeting, marketing and contracts. A lot of viable businesses fail as they can’t manage their cash flow effectively, you need to make sure you know how to plan so you never over commit, even if your clients are late paying you.

The skills part is actually the easier part, if for no other reason than if you lack experience you can learn. The flip side is the mental part. My experience of running a business is that the hours are very long, there is a lot of stress and at the start there isn’t much to show for it. You will also need to get used to working on your own and having to deal with all of the normal agency stresses, plus the management of a business on top of that, without the reassurance of a guaranteed payslip at the end of the month.

If you think you can handle that, then you are probably all set!

Q8: Any last notes/advice for someone planning to start their own business?

The best piece of advice I can give is make sure you have some people you trust and respect that you can turn to for advice. I am lucky enough to have a couple of people who have been there and done it who I can chat to when I need a second opinion. They have really helped me out and have stopped me making some obvious and some not-so-obvious mistakes.

Coupled with that is to make sure when you get advice you listen to it. It is very easy to think that running your own business means that you do whatever you want all the time and you don’t have to listen to other people. You may be lucky and be right all the time, but if you are you may be the exception!

Pritesh Patel

Pritesh Patel is a Digital Marketing Consultant (Freelance) helping building product manufacturers improve their online marketing and website performance. Host of @CMpodcastUK.

Q1: Why did you decide to start your own business, what was the driving force behind it?

I started my own business at the beginning of this year. I knew I always would do at some point and I guess from a personal point of view it was the right time to do it.

I specialise in the construction and building products sector (been in the sector for 7 years now) and it’s a sector that is currently on the upturn after being hit very hard during the last 5 years due to the recession.

Something I’ve observed more recently is that companies are investing more in people and marketing, especially digital. So it made perfect sense to start my own consulting business now.

I also have two lovely boys who I want to see grow up and spend more time with. Luckily in the field we are in, we can do our work from anywhere and at anytime so working from home meant I could earn money, do what I love to do and spend more time with my boys.

Q2: Did you prepare or did you just dive in? Previously I’ve done a collaborative interview and something often mentioned by more matured business owners was having money put aside.

I did prepare and of course I did put some money aside. I had to, I have two boys, a wife to feed and a home to run but I made sure the money part was dealt with as early as possible. The rest of my time I spent building up a solid contact list and attending no end of industry networking gigs. Just prior to going solo I had a solid list of prospects, agencies and freelancers. You’ll need help and it’s worth the time to network as early as possible.

Remember to think about marketing yourself too – big point often forgotten. You’ll need to market yourself, be different in a very competitive market.

Q3: What was the biggest fear before you started up?

I have to be completely honest and say I didn’t have any fears. I already knew that if I had fears then I’d never get started. You have to overcome them by planning in advance. I can imagine most people’s fears would be to do with cashflow but then you can always plan for these things. Stop thinking and act. If you keep thinking you keep wasting time.

Q4: How did you overcome it?

Plan. Plan as early as possible to deal with those fears. If it’s money then plan to cover yourself. Do something.

If it’s worrying about workload then spend some time networking and getting to know people from other agencies. They may have work for you on your first day.

Q5: What is the biggest barrier you’re facing now?

Good question. Not sure if it’s a barrier or not but it’s probably balancing work and home life.

Getting the blend right so to speak. I work from home so it’s difficult for me to kind of switch off, close the laptop and shut the door behind me. After the kids have gone bed I sometimes think I could get another hour in. Or a cheeky check over Analytics on a Sunday afternoon and when that happens; I tend not to come back out of my laptop.

Q6: What are the plans for the future?

I’ve only just started in business and to be honest the future for me is as far as the end of year 1. I have set myself some quarterly financial targets and client targets so it’s just about making sure that I achieve them and pace myself – I don’t want to take on more than I can handle and do the business any harm.

Q7: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

Passion: There’s that quote by Mr Jobs “If you find a job you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life”. If you’re passionate about what you do then you’ll succeed.

2) Determination: You have to be able to kick yourself up the backside every now and again.

3) Business Acumen: You will need to be able to talk to CEO’s and FD’s who may one day be your clients.

If you are confident in talking to people at this level then you have what it takes.

Q8: Any last notes/advice for someone planning to start their own business?

Read this post by Chris Brogan titled ‘106 excuses preventing you from ever being great’.

It kinda hit home that post – you think about stuff, think some more, come up with some excuses, maybe think a little bit more, more excuses and before you know it… it’s not the right time anymore. So you think some more, make some more excuses and think a little bit more… You get the picture.

Also read the book called ‘Think and grow rich’. It contains some useful lessons to help you visualise and focus on
success.

Finally, do create a business plan, do a SWOT analysis and ensure you know what the threats are and you can deal with them. Even if it’s just for yourself at least you have it on paper and you keep referring back to it as a motivator.

Col Skinner

Col Skinner has worked across a spectrum of digital disciplines in agency & inhouse roles over 6 years, then decided to offer this experience to his own clients. He formed Profoundry, a proactive digital consultancy based in Manchester. You can find Col on Twitter here.

Q1: Why did you decide to start your own business, what was the driving force behind it?

I had been working in agencies and in-house roles for 6 years doing things the way others wanted for those who others chose.

  • I was fed up of having proposals dumped on my desk featuring client and service combinations that were unlikely to result in ROI.
  • I was fed up of seeing clients who shouldn’t have been brought on in the first place being over serviced rather than turned away.
  • I was fed up of being in businesses that didn’t dare to experiment with new ideas and risky untested strategies in the hope of achieving something.
  • I was fed up of having a work life balance that gave me no time to experience anything new in my life.
  • I was tired of coming home each day complaining about all these things. That just didn’t seem right.

The key driving force behind the move was ultimately the thought of spending 5 days a week, 233 days a year doing something that made me unhappy.

Q2: Did you prepare or did you just dive in? Previously I’ve done a collaborative interview and something often mentioned by more matured business owners was having money put aside.

The thoughts of leaving my role had been there for some months but the actual decision and action to pack it all in was fairly immediate. I got back from the Christmas holidays, walked into work and told my boss I was leaving.

I had been saving for a rainy day for some time and amassed enough to support myself for 4-6 months. I don’t think I would have dived in like that had I not had a financial cushion to land on in the event things went tits up.

Plan to succeed, but be prepared to fail.
[Tweet “Plan to succeed, but be prepared to fail.”]

Q3: What was the biggest fear before you started up?

The biggest fear for me was simply not making enough money to fund my own business and having to bite the bitter bullet of returning to the rat race to face the doubters, now proven correct.

Q4: How did you overcome it?

I don’t think you ever truly overcame this doubt. You use any doubt to motivate yourself to achieve great things.

I personally invested in the foundations of a professional fully functioning business, cutting no corners. This meant I had to give it my all to pay off the investment and gave me motivation from feeling part of a full time business not a part time dream.

Q5: What is the biggest barrier you’re facing now?

My biggest barrier as an independent consultant has to be the sheer amount of agencies out there with the budgets to put a great deal of money into marketing, tools and resource. Although I feel I offer very different benefits to working with an agency I’d be naive to not recognise them as competition.

Q6: What are the plans for the future?

My plans, despite many assuming, are not to create an agency. I want to build a lifestyle business where I can spend my working days delivering digital insight, strategy & analysis to my clients and the rest of my time enjoying what life has to offer.

Q7: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

BALLS! No, I’m just kidding and retract that sexist remark.

To make it on your own you first have establish your true motivations and abilities.

To find these I often mention these hypothetical scerious/questions as a quick test:

1. Think about handing your notice in tomorrow. Does that thought fill you with:
a. A sense of happiness?
b. A sense of anger/sadness?

2. You get fired tomorrow with enough severance package to last you 3 months. Do you:
a. Go straight into another job in the same industry?
b. Plan and start your own business?

3. Think about winning £50,000 tomorrow. Do you
a. Splurge it on holidays and cars?
b. Build something into a business to change your life forever?

4. Think about being given the opportunity to do your dream job but it pays minimum wage. Do you take it?

5. Are you a “Sayer” or a “Do’er”?
a. Sayers sit in their 9-5 job regularly threatening to leave and go it alone under their breath. They are simply venting their frustrations before getting back into the daily grind and will never actually leave.
b. Do’ers are those who may leave but usually need to cut the cord currently supporting them. By walking out your current job you may put your financial situation at risk but it’s the kick up the arse most people need to start something.

Your own answers to these quick questions should give you some insight into what you want from your career/life. It’s important to remember that self employment is not part of everyone’s goals and there isn’t anything wrong with getting paid by someone else to do a job you love.

Q8: Any last notes/advice for someone planning to start their own business?

Don’t listen to others. I know that sounds like a drastic tip, but remember that family, friends & colleagues aren’t you and will always offload their personal fears and thoughts. You are the one who is ultimately in charge of your career and life. It’s you who will be working late, stressing over money and begging for business leads all to hopefully be rewarded with your dream career.

Cash flow is the nail in the coffin for 70% of new businesses. Payment for freelancers can be sporadic at the best of times. Be prepared to go from receiving pay package popped conveniently into your bank account each more, to desperately outstanding payment reminders to clients.
[Tweet “Cash flow is the nail in the coffin for 70% of new businesses.”]
Don’t be afraid of failure or words like “bankruptcy”. We all can see that these things shouldn’t be taken lightly, but you can pick yourself back up after them. Some of the greatest businessmen and women in the world once had the words ‘BANKRUPT’ by their name.

One last tip:
[Tweet “Build up a thick skin for the critiques, pride in your work and keen self discipline.”]

Natzir Turrado

Natzir Turrado – SEO, CRO & Web Analytics consultant from Barcelona (Spain) & Capital Seed Investor. Conversion speaker at Spanish conferences. Lecturer of Digital Marketing at several Business Schools. He post on his blog http://www.analistaseo.es/.

Q1: Why did you decide to start your own business, what was the driving force behind it?

The first reason is that many clients wanted me to work for them and I couldn’t do it because I was working in agency.

The second reason is that I needed time to carry out my personal project, create a conversion optimization consultancy. This is something that almost doesn’t barely exists in Spain.

And the third and last reason is that I wanted to choose who to work for.

Q2: Did you prepare or did you just dive in? Previously I’ve done a collaborative interview and something often mentioned by more matured business owners was having money put aside.

I just dive in, but I already had previous experience in entrepreneurship for a year.

Q3: What was the biggest fear before you started up?

Not knowing the money you will earn each month.

Q4: How did you overcome it?

Leaving the agency when I had four clients.

Q5: What is the biggest barrier you’re facing now?

The time! Does anyone know where can I buy some?

Q6: What are the plans for the future?

I want to create a school to teach conversion optimization in Spain.

Q7: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

You’ll need a hard-working spirit, do what you enjoy and take it seriously. Surround yourself with the right partners and plan it all from start.

Q8: Any last notes/advice for someone planning to start their own business?

Sometimes the things can go wrong, hence the need to plan everything and have a B plan to pivot the business model if required
And remember, create a good personal brand and customers will come by themselves!

Ned Poulter

Ned Poulter – CEO & Founder of Pole Star Digital, a specialist digital marketing consultancy. 

Q1: Why did you decide to start your own business, what was the driving force behind it?

It’s a strange one really, throughout my life I’ve often just ‘gone with the wind’ and followed my nose. I’m a very dedicated individual, however I also know the damaging nature of being too fixated on one single outcome can be. Failing to adapt means you can get left behind. Life can deal you a lot of blows, but being flexible and willing to change is a great mantra that I’d advise anyone to follow.

[Tweet “Failing to adapt means you can get left behind.”]

As far back as when I was selecting and starting my degree I was unsure on the subject, I’d never studied business before but I was aware that I wanted to study something that had a tangible outcome. I ended up discovering that I loved the marketing/digital marketing aspect to things. I was lucky enough to have the ability to work in digital marketing during a placement year at Warner Bros, and from there I’ve never really looked back. In particular David Edmundson-Bird (Principal Lecturer in Digital Marketing Comms & Enterprise at MMU) and Kelly Bennett an ex-colleague who has now gone on to be the CMO of Netflix particular inspirations of mine, hugely passionate and willing to share their knowledge constantly, I owe them both a lot.

Q2: Did you prepare or did you just dive in? Previously I’ve done a collaborative interview and something often mentioned by more matured business owners was having money put aside.

I suppose I did a bit of both really. I didn’t exactly wake up on a Monday morning quit my job and just go for it. However, I also didn’t plan for years, it was a fairly short time that I considered the variety of things that I believed that were most important. I think that one thing that people get hung up on aren’t necessary, you don’t need a fancy office (although thanks to Danish standards AvitaDigital’s aren’t bad at all! 😉 or too much preparation to be able to deliver a good job to your clients.

I did put money into AvitaDigital, although it wasn’t megabucks, and I did so for reasons other than needing money from the outset. We were lucky enough to onboard some great paying clients from day one. In digital marketing starting up can be done on a very small (almost non-existent) budget, the importance is to focus on utilising what you already have and being strict about what expenses your business really will require to set up. That said, one thing that you really might not consider (due to always being provided it by the employer) is the cost of software: even Microsoft Office isn’t exactly cheap, plus subscriptions to tools that you use to do your job soon all mount up so incorporate these into your budget.

One piece of advice I would give is the importance of trying to keep some savings that are just yours, starting a business is an exciting and scary time, but try to be sensible enough to have a plan B should everything not work out like you would want it to.

Q3: What was the biggest fear before you started up?

Cashflow. I know from my time working at various agencies that unfortunately some clients can turn out to be bad clients, this doesn’t mean that they are uncooperative or bad people as such, it just means that sometimes it can take a long time for the money to filter through. Signing a huge new contract with an amazing stock-listed client may be one thing, however their payment processes may be sluggish and very different to what you need in an adaptable and very green start up.

When you have just 2 staff and you’re both working hard to develop new business, provide the best possible service to your existing clients (over and above what they have come to expect) and ultimately make your project a success, chasing debtors is something you really don’t want taking up your time.

Q4: How did you overcome it?

I still am! Try to overcome potential cash-flow issues by diversifying your revenue streams, whether working on different clients or disciplines, this way you can be more flexible should any issues arise. Being realistic and selective about who you work with is definitely advice I’d give to anyone looking to start up on their own.

From experience I’ve seen that sometimes the smallest clients are the most difficult to work with and manage, generally speaking if the money is coming directly from their pocket they will be inclined to be far more emotionally attached to it, and will question even the smallest details.

At AvitaDigital we are quite prepared to turn a potential client down should we not believe that we can have a real impact on their business, I know from experience that this is different than some other companies out there, but this allows us to mediate any potentially painful clients before even onboarding them.

Q5: What is the biggest barrier you’re facing now?

There’s a lot to be said about selling when it comes to digital marketing, I think this is perhaps a weaker side to my portfolio. Weirdly, I think a lot of this is simply through my being too honest. At AvitaDigital we take pride in happily saying that a potential client may not benefit from the activities that they’re wanting us to pitch in on.

Ultimately this means that some initial calls may seem fairly open and honest, but at least it allows me to sleep at night. Increasing AvitaDigital’s reputation and building up some great case studies of work we’ve done with clients will help to overcome this potential barrier though, and from there different barriers such as growth and expansion will probably replace those that we’re dealing with at the moment.

Q6: What are the plans for the future?

Ideally my plans are to utilise my knowledge to help our clients provide excellent results. From there, both me and Kasper (AvitaDigital’s other co-founder) are very much focused on developing our own product[s]. We have a number of really exciting projects that we’re looking into launching in Scandinavia over the next months and years, and we’re hoping that at least one of these we can develop to being a successful business in it’s own right.

There’s a huge amount of innovative ideas flying about in the States and further afield, however translating these into a European context isn’t always as easy as some may think. We’re hoping to lead by example, put our names to some exciting concepts and ultimately have fun on the way.

Q7: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

It takes balls and courage of your convictions. Really that’s the most important aspect that I have uncovered from starting out. I honestly couldn’t (and wouldn’t!) have done it without being inspired by a number of peers in my industry. The willingness to help out even what may be deemed as a direct competitor in the industry that we work in is something that is incredibly humbling, without naming names (you know who you are) but it’s a very special aspect to the SEO/digital marketing industry that sets us apart from many others.

While this is easy enough to say, don’t forget that ultimately it’s on your shoulders to make a success of things, this shouldn’t be taken lightly. That said, I wouldn’t want to put anyone off trying should you have a real burning desire to something yourself. A great quote around this is by Luke Johnson, author of Start it Up (much recommended read if you’re thinking of starting out on your own)

“If you’re in a position to pick and choose when to become an entrepreneur, consider yourself unlucky. You risk becoming one of those unfortunates who find a reason to put it off for ever.”
[Tweet “You risk becoming one of those unfortunates who find a reason to put it off for ever.”]

I forgot the individual who I first heard it from, but another great piece of advice that I always stick by is simply

“Don’t be a dick”

While fairly amusing, it says it like it is. The industry unfortunately has some people who are prepared to sell their soul just to recruit every potential client that they come cross. Put simply, I’d rather be able to sleep at night than to approach business this way. Scaling your business is one thing, but promising the world and under delivering is quite another. Developing great client relationships can go an awfully long way and investing time into developing a transparent, honest and dedicated approach to doing better for your clients business can create fantastic results and ultimately a great rapport too.

Q8: Any last notes/advice for someone planning to start their own business?

Consider moonlighting (at least for the initial start up period) prior to leaving the safety net of your current job. Trying to secure 1/2 paying clients prior to the official or public launch can help (it did for AvitaDigital). Cash is (unfortunately for some) still king and making sure you have a positive cash-flow at inception is something that set us in very good stead, treading water and getting chased down by your accountant every month isn’t fun.

Pin down the services that you offer – be honest about those that you don’t. A lack of focus could be your downfall so stick to what you do best and be wary of saying yes just for the sake of it.
[Tweet “Pin down the services that you offer – be honest about those that you don’t.”]

Network your ass off. It’s amazing how useful building up a network to act as a sounding board can be. I’ve used it to get in touch with designers, developers, test ideas and sometimes just to check whether or not I’m thinking along the right lines. Networking is not actually as difficult as some make it out to be, but you’ve got to put the time in. Generally being present in online discussions/forums, blogging, attending events and ‘mingling’ with industry peers, can all be great ways of expanding your network.

Tom Clark

Convert Digital is a fresh and new digital marketing business with an emphasis on increasing its client’s bottom line with a combination of SEO, CRO and Social Media activity.

Q1: Why did you decide to start your own business, what was the driving force behind it?

My main driving force to start my own digital marketing business was for freedom and financial gain, whilst taking ownership and responsibility for projects. I have other commitments in my life such as training at the gym and a 2nd business that had plateaued whilst working in a web agency. Losing touch with the things that mean a lot to you is only going to lead to frustration and a negative impact on your work anyway.

I am also keen on trying to save money and be able to work remotely whilst on short travels. Living in a relatively expensive part of the UK (Brighton) means you do have to find ways to save money if this is something that means a lot to you.

Q2: Did you prepare or did you just dive in? Previously I’ve done a collaborative interview and something often mentioned by more matured business owners was having money put aside.

I had prepared and put in a lot of work to ensure I would be suited to working for myself and had a cushion of money in place to cover a couple of months if times got tough. Running a 2nd business meant I was earning some money to help out along the way and already understood about being responsible for your own workflow.

Q3: What was the biggest fear before you started up?

My biggest fear was having gaps in my knowledge that I was not aware of due to the nature of working in an agency and how this might impact my success. Going from having multiple people to turn to in the office, to relying on your own initiative and research abilities is a shock at first.

Q4: How did you overcome it?

I just faced each hurdle as it came and realised that most things can be found out after a few clicks and a helping hand from Google 😉

Q5: What is the biggest barrier you’re facing now?

Developing some of my client’s brands online without a budget to cover collaborative campaigns (particularly in the fashion and beauty verticals).

Q6: What are the plans for the future?

I plan to continue to raise the bar and develop some of the amazing clients I currently work with, including a niche social network, a voucher code & discount site and many more stellar businesses. I also have some travel time planned for a trip to Rio De Janeiro with my girlfriend. I am passionate about the cross over between ‘SEO’ and Conversion Rate Optimisation and want to further educate my clients on the power of this tasty little combo.

Q7: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

I think you know in your heart if you want to take on a new challenge like this. If you can’t stop thinking about it and visualising a different lifestyle, then the chances are you don’t need pushing, its just being open-minded to taking the risk.

Having a 2nd income stream is ideal so you can lighten the load if you leave one job and the next day have to find your clients. For people that don’t have a 2nd income stream that does not conflict with the company you currently work for, you may need to find your own clients whilst in your current job (however this is frowned upon!).

Q8: Any last notes/advice for someone planning to start their own business?

Get a good accountant, get up and hit the gym, don’t over-think about money – think about helping your clients and the money will follow. Also, learn to shut off and respect that not everyone cares about your journey (I’m still learning this one!). Enjoy the ride 🙂

[Tweet “Get a good accountant, get up and hit the gym, don’t over-think about money “]

Jane Copland

New Zealander in Berkshire, working for herself – find Jane Copland at: http://janecopland.co.uk/.

Note from Krystian: Jane answered in a bit of a non-standard manner. I love her character and approach and the off-records thoughts she has sent me about starting out on her own after great times with Ayima. So I decided to include her, regardless of the fact her answers didn’t fit within the format – there are still gems of wisdom within them, enjoy!

What I will say in regards to question seven and eight is that my main obstacle to overcome has been strength in negotiation and knowing what you are worth. Also, knowing which projects to pass up. When you work at an agency, the choice of whether to pursue a client or project is often made with your help but not entirely by you. I worked in business development / sales for my last year at Ayima. I was shy about negotiation beforehand (I did terribly in the Hong Kong and Camden Town markets too!).

I have overcome this entirely in the past twelve months. If you are going to sign your own freelance clients and not do yourself a disservice in the process, you have to get over this quickly. If you are a creative sort (writer, developer, strategist) rather than a businessperson, this can take you out of your comfort zone. It’s on you, and it’s also on you to say no when a lead isn’t right. I was burned once in the past with a freelance client going back on a clause in the payment agreement that I did not made strong enough (this was side-work, a few years ago). If freelance is your only means of income, you can’t afford that.

I’d encourage anyone thinking of working for themselves to work in their company’s sales team for a while if they have discomfort with those sorts of topics or negotiations.

Mike King

Mike King is a Digital Marketing Consultant specializing in SEO, Content Strategy, Social Media and Measurement. Former Dir. Marketing & Strategy at iAcquire & SEO at Razorfish and Publicis Modem.

Q1: Why did you decide to start your own business, what was the driving force behind it?

We all have responsibility to do something that we love and that we’re proud of, otherwise what’s the point?
[Tweet “We all have responsibility to do something that we love and that we’re proud of, otherwise what’s the point? “]

I’m striking out on my own simply because I want to change the world and it’s been difficult to do that within other people’s companies. I love leading change, I love getting great results for clients and I love building and inspiring teams to reach their potential. I’m also always overflowing with ideas so it just makes sense for me to give it a try on my own.

Q2: Did you prepare or did you just dive in? Previously I’ve done a collaborative interview and something often mentioned by more matured business owners was having money put aside.

I’ve always tried to keep a couple dollars tucked away just in case, but the reality of it is, in my opinion, you’ll never feel “ready,” you just have to step up and do it.

[Tweet “You’ll never feel “ready,” you just have to step up and do it.”]
I think it’s more important to find like-minded clients that are ready to work with you when you’re ready to make a move. I’m lucky to have a few interested parties.

Q3: What was the biggest fear before you started up?

When I did music full time I went through the “sporadic income rollercoaster” that comes with touring and record deals. I don’t miss that. Now I live in New York City, one of the most expensive cities in the US, and I’ve gotten used to a certain standard of living. So the biggest fear for me is falling back into that roller coaster.

Q4: How did you overcome it?

I just realized that failure is not an option and that I need to use that fear of failure as a motivator rather than a hindrance. I’m operating on the hope and confidence that if I do my best to give my clients the care and the results that I’m capable of then what I’m doing will snowball into growth rather than failure. Plus I’ve gotten to watch some awesome consultants and agencies who have come before me and I get to stand on the shoulders of giants.

Q5: What is the biggest barrier you’re facing now?

I need a strong name for the brand and I’ve been racking my brain to come up with something as cool as “Razorfish.” As of now I do my consulting under iPullRank, which is cool for now, but ultimately I want to build a new brand that isn’t my own handle so it can be much bigger than me.

Q6: What are the plans for the future?

My #1 goal right now is finding some more awesome clients who are really interested in doing some great work and after strong results. If you know any I’d appreciate it if you told them about me. Ultimately, though, I want to build my personal work up large enough for it to become a boutique agile consultancy with a small team of really awesome creative and strategists. Naturally, I want it to be much bigger than SEO eventually.

What I really want to do is work on a campaign as impactful as DeBeers’ engagement ring campaign. Stepping out on my own is just the first step in changing the world.

Q7: What does it take to start on your own do you think? How would a reader know they have what it takes?

I honestly don’t know if I’m qualified to answer this as I’m just getting started really. What I think it takes is talent, drive, and great project management skills and good people skills.

After all you have to be good at what you do, you have to get up every day motivated to get stuff done, you have to stay on top of all the work and you people have to like you. My guess is that if you don’t have at least 3 of those things you should consider starting something with a partner that has what you’re missing.

Q8: Any last notes/advice for someone planning to start their own business?

Stop waiting for the right time. Figure out what it’s going to take and do it!

[Tweet “Stop waiting for the right time. Figure out what it’s going to take and do it! “]

Comments ( 4 )
  • Tom Clark says:

    Another great Q&A Krystian. Hope to see some of these guys at BrightonSEO tomorrow!

  • Andy says:

    Great article, I’ve read a few of the interviews and plan to come to the rest later. I’m in the process of starting my own company. I have a couple regular freelance gigs and some consultancy off and on.

    It’s converting my freelance companies into business clients I am a bit concerned about, and the actual logistics of setting up a business and acquiring a couple people.

    But other than that, business is good, I’m working with a couple friends of mine that have their own businesses and pushing them to achieve some online notoriety. Doing OK so far… Need another push!

  • Sonia Pitt says:

    It is going to be one of the valuable post for me for the year of 2015 and ahead. I am a digital marketing professional and couple of months back I started my education startup. These Q&A post help me to jot down many new ideas which can help me in my business promotion and lead generation. Many a point noted and the page is bookmarked for future read and as a reference. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rob Stephens says:

    Hey Krystian,

    Nice article, always good to hear personal stories.

    I believe the best way to start a business in digital, is to pick a niche you are truly passionate about as it will make working the long hours easier and clients will appreciate the energy and enthusiasm.

    I always find working directly with the business owners helps to build a solid relationship and just makes things run smoother without too many decision makers.

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