When the opportunity arose to discuss one advanced subject with the SEO expert, who is respectfully tight-lipped on specific techniques, the next best subject was how he manages to stay relevant in a sea of noise. The self-proclaimed shameless marketing whore and adrenaline junkie has been noticeably absent from sites like Sphinn and much of the back and forth chatter on Twitter (until recently, follow Todd!). So, I had to ask, how can he possibly stay informed on major trends without getting overwhelmed? I was hoping for a kernel of time balancing genius, a secret time machine that only SEOs of a certain stature received a key to. Todd didn’t have the “Easy” button, but he did have some excellent business advice.
How do you balance everything?
Todd: With my career progression, I’ve had to spend more time working and less blogging. In the last two years I’ve gone to less sessions at conferences not because I didn’t want to learn, but because I’d end up wasting more time trying to put new things into action. I have to channel the ADD!
The thing is blogging can be core to building a brand or a business, but others just do it to waste time or keep their name out there. If you’re a solo consultant or boutique agency with dedicated clients you don’t really need the attention. Besides, the same articles have been written over and over. When I started most people were blogging about SEO news versus specific techniques. It’s more worthwhile having one or two great articles because I don’t want to be a blogger, I want to be a competitive web marketer.
Todd’s adrenaline junkie reputation precedes him when Matt Cutts joins the interview to discuss the exhilarating sport of indoor sky diving. Someone mentioned a YouTube video of a guy breaking his arm. After finally watching “2 girls, 1 cup” my YouTube tolerance is maxed out, so find that one yourselves.
Getting back on track, which tools are invaluable for running your business?
Todd: Time management is key, which is why I’m addicted to using the best tools.
*Disclaimer: Todd doesn’t promote the product, but he does have an affiliate relationship with them.
How do you balance work with industry research?
Todd: Doing versus research is definitely the biggest dilemma. How do I balance my time? I used to do an hour or two of research in the morning and a little more at end. Now I try to keep it to less than an hour a day and a few hours of email. Between the calls, Twitter and email, my time goes back and forth and then it’s 4pm!
Besides research and email, what else eats up your time?
Todd: I’m addicted to domaining tools and buying domains. Here’s the thing, you have to pick your battle though, if you have two hundred sites and twenty that could be really big, what do you focus on?
Why do so many SEOs have their own sites vs just clients?
Todd: It’s a place to test the waters, push the envelope and not be scared of taking a risk. It comes back to that career progression from client work to your own properties. If you’re going to spend time on your own site, you have to risk the time and investment up front to be successful. To quote Wall Street’s Gordon Gekko‚ “greed is good.”
It comes back to being an adrenaline junkie, too, because success is taking the leap. I always reinvest profits from one site into another. It’s easy to fall back on “consulting crack” because it’s a steady source of income, but I get jealous when I see my work help a client’s site succeed. Yeah, I got paid well, but it could have been my idea instead.
What are the biggest challenges as a business owner?
Todd: There really isn’t anymore security in a 9-5 job versus your own gig. The biggest difficulties though are business accounting, insurance (tip: join small business associations or local chambers of commerce and you can get insurance through them) and personal savings (it’s an education curve‚ start early… compound interest is your friend).
The thing is it’s easy to waste time doing the administrative stuff because you have to manage yourself not just your tasks. Getting bogged down with administration will eat you alive if you let it. You need to delegate to people more experienced than yourself. Know the basics though so you don’t get burned.
I consider my free time at the same hourly rate as work. It’s a huge expense and valuable. A solid four hour day of real work versus administration is high quality. The problem is, I’m obviously an adrenaline junkie and I probably won’t be able to jump out of airplanes later in life, so it’s important that I live it up now.
I don’t really track my hours. I used QuickBooks Timer for awhile and hated it as an employee, but it was a good exercise in seeing how much time I spent on real work, email, Twitter, personal projects, etc.
How do you stay relevant in the industry?
Todd: Specialization. I specialize in what I’m good at and refer the other stuff.
How do you choose your clients?
Todd: Personal enjoyment and the value I can deliver to a client. When I got more popular it became necessary to either get more people and scale or become more selective. I chose not to settle for clients that drain time and I can’t deliver value to. If my client isn’t happy then I won’t be happy either.
Have you had unhappy clients that refused to pay?
Todd: Only happened once. The best red flags to keep in mind, do you they have a bad business model? Do they complain about your prices? You have to be willing to fire a client.
How many clients have you fired?
Todd: I’ve re-assigned but not fired. I try not to do more than a month contract or month-to-month. I’ll plan a six month strategy even if it’s a month contract though. It’s important to remember that I’m working myself out of a job, so the beginning value is bigger than future. It gives customers more faith in you if you give them a strategy versus a one-time gig plus it manages their expectations. I also always give them an opt-out clause, but I’ve never had anyone take it. I always bill the month before the start of the project. Paying up front is a hard sell‚ sometimes I’ll do 50% up front, whatever works best. There’s a retainer for general questions, because lots of clients just want reassurance.
A lot of my clients in the last year have been an in-house SEO needing reassurance more than anything. They know their business, so they’re more informed than me, but the techniques and expert answers are what I bring to the table. The biggest struggle is usually internal politics with corporate and bigger companies. I end up playing diplomat as a consultant more than an actual SEO because they already have an experienced team that isn’t being listened to.
How do you decide on which conferences to attend?
Todd: Conferences are more about friends now. It’s more vacation than business. I try to get one new contract, business partner or client at the conference, but that’s about it.
How much do you rely on others in the industry?
Todd: A HUGE amount. If I have a PPC question, need help with a policy change, new product development, etc. I’ll often wait until a few others dabble in a new area before adopting it and diving into the research. I’m not always going to be the first person to discover the latest and greatest. With Twitter I signed up year and a half ago, but then I let it hang until more people joined.
How do you stay in touch with your industry contacts?
Todd: I’ll travel home‚ talk over IM or Twitter, or attend conferences. You have to make the time for your friends. You can’t go into a conference and expect that people are just going to give, give, give. You have to pay your dues. Walking into a room and expecting to be buddy buddy just isn’t realistic. And you have to question your transparency in the industry. If you’re too open, you’ll get banned.
Have you been burned?
Todd: Not too much. For the “Buying Sites for SEO” panel at SMX Advanced I was really reluctant to talk about buying sites. Techniques get over exposed and lose their ability to perform. Diminishing value with critical mass.
I did that with social sites, I built a big user account for Digg. I didn’t know if I should give a how-to on creating a power account. I wrote a whole document and came close to sending out, but chose not to. Others did. It’s the difference of 10 people knowing vs 100 vs 1,000 vs 10,000.