How does a one-man operation that does work for local hair solons grow to become a 50+ person team with clients like LinkedIn?
Wil Reynolds is the founder of SEER Interactive, a fast-growing, internet marketing agency that he started in his home.
I invited him to talk about how he turned it into a multi-million dollar business.
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Wil Reynolds, SEER Interactive
Wil Reynolds is the founder of SEER Interactive, which is a fast growth, dynamic search marketing agency.
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And remember Patrick Buckley who I interviewed? He came up with an idea for an iPad case. He built a store to sell it, and in a few months, he generated about a million dollars in sales. Well the platform he used is Shopify. If you have an idea to sell anything, set up your store on Shopify dot com because Shopify stores are designed to increase sales. Plus, Shopify makes it easy to set up a beautiful store and manage it. Shopify dot com. Here’s your program:
Hey there freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I am the found of Mixergy, home of the ambitious upstart. How does a one-man operation that does work for local hair salons grow to become a 50-person team with clients like Linkedin? Wil Reynolds is the founder of SEER Interactive, a fast-growing, internet marketing agency that he started from his home. I invited him here to talk about he bootstrapped that company to over a million dollars in business. Wil, welcome to Mixergy.
Wil: Thanks, Andrew. Thanks for having me.
Andrew: You and I met through a good friend of ours; Justin at AWeber and when we started talking via email, I asked you would you reveal your revenue in a Mixergy interview and you said yeah, I’m up, I’ll do it. So I’m going to hit you with that as the first question. Wil, what’s your annual revenue right now?
Wil: Five million dollars.
Andrew: Five million dollars in sales top-line?
Andrew: OK. It all happened, this business that we’re going to hear so much about in this interview, because the boss at the company you were working for said what to you?
Wil: That I couldn’t work through my lunch, to volunteer on Wednesdays from 6 to 9 working with sick kids.
Andrew: What were you looking to do with sick kids?
Wil: I had a cousin who was in Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and all these people, these volunteers, just kind of played with him and took time with him to get his mind off of his illness at the time, right? And I thought, wow, you know what, I would like to do something like that and I started doing it. And what I learned is, when parents have a sick child in the hospital, it kind of consumes all their time. So then they don’t end up spending a lot of time as a couple. Everything when can they come in, when can you do this, when can you be there for that, right? So the volunteers give the parents a little bit of time. And I started showing up a little bit late for those, parents were missing reservations and things like that. So I went back to my boss and I said, hey, can I work through my lunch so that I can get there on time, because there’s a lot of traffic on the way? And she said no and I started SEER four days later.
Andrew: Wow. What was the company and what were you doing for them?
Wil: I was working for a big, Fortune 500 company called Aon at the time. You know, I think that as a company they would have supported that but, my chain of command, was like, oh you can’t do that. I understand that that was the decision that she had to make but then I had to make decisions, too.
Andrew: They’re a huge company, they do insurance, risk management, reinsurance. What were you? A guy who is now an internet marketer for companies like Crayola, what were you doing at a company that does reinsurance brokering?
Wil: Taking a break.
Wil: I was started doing SEO in ’99 so it’s the only job I’ve ever had. And I loved it but I worked a start-up that had a shower built in the office at one point. Like it wasn’t already there and we were like, oh there’s a shower. It was like, no, we pull so many all-nighters and then have to go into New York in the morning, we’re going to build a shower in the office. That’s intense.
Andrew: It wasn’t a perk, it was a shackle is what you’re saying?
Wil: A little bit, but, you know, I love that experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything, and I actually wish that it all worked out.
But after that — and then they went under — I went, man, you know, it’d be nice to take a job where I actually worked probably 45 hours a week, 50, that also was a job that had a lot of international travel. And I was scared to fly, so I figured no better way to overcome your fears than to look them right in the face. So that was part of the reason why I took the job.
Andrew: All right. So, now, four days after you have this incident happen to you with your boss where he says you can’t volunteer by changing around your hours here, you go and you start your business. You owned your own home at the time, because you had a good job, you could afford to do that. What happens when you go from that good job, dependable salary that can pay the mortgage to starting your own company? How do even freaking pay the mortgage?
Wil: Easily. You have other people pay your mortgage.
Andrew: What do you mean?
Wil: So, I bought a triplex, and I took the shittiest of all the apartments available, and I lived in that one, and I rented the two nice ones out, and those couples paid for most of the mortgage. I had a crappy car that was paid off, so really my largest bill on a monthly basis was probably my cell phone, so it allowed me to basically make nothing and get by.
Andrew: I see. So you really got your expenses down to barely anything. They covered, as I understand it, maybe even almost all of your mortgage, right?
Wil: Yeah. I mean, I didn’t have any — I mean, my largest expense every month was my cell phone bill.
Andrew: I see. It was pretty much like living at home. You got all the freedom — you know, living at home with your parents, except you’ve got your own place, the crappiest in a triplex. Boy, that’s really enterprising, by the way, that you would get that kind of a building, that you would have the rents from that, from your tenants, cover your mortgage. I really admire that.
All right. So now it’s time for you to get customers. One of the first questions I like to ask is where do you get your first customers when it’s just you and this cellphone bill that has to get paid month to month?
Wil: So I had already been doing some freelance work while I was at Aon just to try to get a little bit more work with Bill. And I had maybe two or three clients at the time, and it was weird, because as I started SEER, I went from working with Barnes & Noble and Mercedes Benz, Double-click.
I did Double-click’s SEO from ’99 to 2000, right? It’s funny. So you’re thinking the Internet advertising company hired an SEO firm? It’s like, yeah. Back then people thought banners was going to be everything.
So I was used to working with larger brands and the muscle that they had. I went and just started knocking on doors in my neighborhood, seeing if I could do anything for anyone that I could help them with. And my belief, which is what I still believe to this day, is if you do a great job for every person that trusts you with their business or their baby or their goals or their objectives, then they will tell other people about you and you won’t have to spend a lot of time selling.
So after those first couple months of knocking on some doors and never had to sell again.
Andrew: Did you — what kind of doors did you knock on? You mean literally walking door to door from — you know, I introduced you at the top of the interview as a guy who sold to salons. You went and you sold to salons door to door or you tried to get the big names early on?
Wil: No, dude. They’re never going to work with me. I was one guy, working out of my apartment. It didn’t matter how much I knew or where I worked before. I mean, I’m the quintessential accidental entrepreneur. I was looking for a company to hire me while I was at Aon. I never wanted to start a company, but it took me — it was two and a half years of my not even getting an interview anywhere at major companies in the Philadelphia area for me to just go I guess I got no choice but to kind of do this myself.
I just went knocking on — “Hey! You know, knock. What are you doing? When you type in these words, you don’t show up. I think I might know a thing or two about that.” Got one client, and that led to them referring and referring and referring.
Andrew: I see. You told April who pre-interviewed you you’d go into local stores and say, “I see your competitor online when I search, but I don’t see you. How’d you like to change it?”
Andrew: That was the way you promoted it.
Wil: Well, of course. I mean, because it just makes sense, right? It was the one thing I liked about SEO or any kind of search marketing or any kind of accountable marketing, is I could say, “Look. Every morning you can wake up and type these words in, and if you’re not somewhere on that first page, it’s kind of hard for me to spin that a number 13 is a good thing in terms of where you rank.”
So I liked that accountability and I embraced it. I think a lot of people run from it, because it’s hard when your clients can type things in every day and go, “Are you working? Are you working?” But if you find the right clients, they understand the process and they don’t do that.
Andrew: Actually, a lot of clients will not understand the process. I’ve talked to search engine optimization companies here who said that people don’t know that it doesn’t happen overnight. That there are no guarantees here. That I imagine that the smaller operators who have very little money to play with and a lot less experience know it even less, so how do you deliver results to them when they’re expecting it so definitely in an industry that’s not so definite.
Wil: You don’t work with people who don’t accept that reality because they’ll always have an issue and at some point, a certain amount of this is outside of your control. It’s like guaranteeing winning the Super Bowl. Yeah, you might have a great team and you might have had tons of Super Bowl rings in the past but you can’t guarantee you’re going to win the Super Bowl again, or when you do, that rarely works out.
That’s the issue, right? If you take on clients who have expectations of you that you can’t fulfill, then it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yeah, they’re going to be a pain because you sold them on something when you should have educated them and said, “Look, this isn’t how it works and anyone that tells you that that’s how it works is taking shortcuts or they’re not looking out for you best long-term interests.” So I only work with the clients who are willing to accept that reality.
Andrew: OK. Actually, before I even continue, here’s the thing that I would start to feel. “I worked with these big brands. Then I went to work for a Fortune 500 company and now I’ve got to go in and work for a salon that doesn’t fully get it. I’m meant for something here in this world.” How do you get past that very real feeling that would keep a lot of people from taking that step?
Wil: The truth is I was having an impact on people. So when you work with a small business and you can get them ranked for a keyword and you can track how much more traffic they’re getting and the leads that they’re getting, you are impacting someone’s life. You are getting them leads coming in and you know they’re good people and they’re going to deliver on quality and they’re going to deliver for people. So that was just a great feeling, man.
Yeah, it was a little bit of an ego hit but whatever. When I was working with a large company, it was, “We have to spend the budget,” and it wasn’t that like, “Dude, I mortgaged part of my house to give you this. Please tell me you’re not one of the guys who’s going to run off and not do a good job.”
Andrew: All right. So now you’re building this thing up, keeping your costs lean, working from home. I’ve got an office here. I guess technically I could have done this from home, but I need the office to keep me from distraction. Do you find yourself getting distracted by food in the middle of the day, by having to go and answer the UPS track and the neighbor issue and construction issues? Do you ever have any of those things? How did you overcome them?
Wil: I got an office.
Andrew: You did get an office early on?
Wil: I was not good on working out of the house. I worked out of the house in the beginning because I had to. I think an hour break takes on a very different meaning when you’re in an office versus when your bed is, like, right there. It’s like, “I’ll take a nap for an hour,” but then it takes you a half-hour, 45 minutes to kind of get back into the mojo, versus saying, “I’m going to go out to lunch for an hour.” So for me, I had to get out of working from home as soon as I could possibly afford some semblance of an office because I just don’t work very well out of the house.
The only thing that was great about working out of the house was I had this mirror and every day when I couldn’t close business and there wasn’t enough there, I said, “Somebody bought an SEO service today. They just didn’t buy it from you.” I knew I was good at what I did so it wasn’t like, “Oh, am I not good enough?” I knew I knew what I was doing. That’s the beauty of being at home. I can go in my bathroom every morning and brush my teeth and say, “You haven’t sold anything in fricking three weeks and it’s because somebody else bought something from someone other than you so get your ass back out there.”
Andrew: That’s such an inspiring way to get going with the day.
Wil: Well, it’s true! I mean, think about it. “Oh, the economy’s bad.” Yeah, well somebody somewhere sold someone on what you offer. You just didn’t get in front of them so it’s not like people stopped altogether buying what you offer. Just work harder.
Andrew: All right so you’re getting yourself out of your home and I know that when you’re working for yourself, I think it’s harder to work from home than if you’re working for someone else who’s holding you really accountable and when you know what you need to do to earn some money. When you’re an entrepreneur, you don’t know what you need to do and that can start to play games with you. And then you look for distractions, which are much more readily available at home. You get yourself an office. At what point do you start hiring one of these people? You end up now with 50 people. At what point do you start hiring people?
Wil: That was around 2005 so I had been around for about three years in total. I never wanted to win by myself so I was one of those guys who, personally, what some people don’t realize, especially in a consulting business, is your first six hires, everyone that you hire, you’re just like, “Oh my God. I finally stopped eating Ramen noodles and cereal everyday and by hiring you, I’m going back to that. But I think that what we can do together is greater than what I can just do by myself.”
Andrew: That’s literally the speech you would give them, or essentially the speech you’d give them?
Wil: Basically. The first guy I ever hired, a guy named Joe Kovach, freaking awesome dude, love him to this day. He and I sat down over sweet potato fries at a diner. And I was like, “Dude, I can’t afford to give you health insurance, but you will hear me break my soul making cold calls, which I hate, to just make sure I can eventually get you health insurance.” And we sat in our office that was so small, he sat there and saw me making cold calls to try to get that kid health insurance in the beginning.
Andrew: What did Joe do? How did you know who to hire first?
Wil: I don’t know if I can (?)! I went with my gut. I found some dude off of Craigslist, and he sounded really cool, and he came and interviewed, and he was genuine. He was a good guy. It just seemed like he had a great spirit. And I was like — and he was willing to take a risk on me, right? Because I surely wasn’t paying industry rates or anything like that. So I’m always forever indebted to Joe, because, you know, he took a big risk on me at a time when he didn’t have to.
Andrew: Don’t you worry when you say to someone, “Look, I ate ramen or cereal last night instead of steak because I want to be able to save some money to hire you.” Don’t you worry, at that point, that that person’s going to say, “I don’t think I can work with this guy. It’s just too risky.” Maybe not at the moment that you hire him, he’s inspired at the time by this speech, but when things go bad, he’s going to want to run away. When someone else makes him a better offer, he’s going to want to go run to safety. Don’t you worry about giving that speech, that you’re encouraging that later on?
Wil: No, because it’s freaking true. Like, it was the truth. So it’s like, “I need you to know the gravity at which — you know, I’m not just, like, going out and traveling and chilling, and not paying you.” I’m like, “If I’m not paying you what your rate is, you deserve an explanation as to why. And you now know why, right?” I wish people were that honest with me when I worked, and I was a young guy. So I figured, you know, you reap what you sow, and I believe in being brutally honest with people.
And some people, they were like, “Wow, that is too risky.” And that was fine, because now that we’re 60 people and open in two offices, it’s like, “You should have taken a risk on me!”
Wil: I’ll be the bad guy.
Andrew: All right. So you hire that first person. Who else do you hire? How do you fill out the first group of people who work for you?
Wil: Good question. Craigslist was awesome. For me, I didn’t have the money to post on Monster and whatnot. You know, you just watch your money just, like, get gobbled up. Like, you’re like, “Oh my God, it’s gone already!” So I didn’t have the money to post anywhere but Craigslist. And back then, it was completely free. And I found that people that search on Craigslist are a little more scrappy. I mean, there’s the people that just go, “Ah, I’ll put my resume out on Monster. Ah, I’ll put it here and see what comes in.” The Craigslist people were, like, a little more scrappy.
And for me, I wanted scrappy. I needed that person that was looking under every rock to find the right job, not the person that just goes, “Ah, Monster.com, SEO or whatever, and yeah, I guess I’ll click my resume and send it in.” Click, send, done. I wanted people who looked a little bit deeper. So that’s what, Craigslist was great for us in the beginning.
Andrew: What positions were you hiring for? Was it sales? Was it SEO practitioners?
Wil: SEO practitioners. In the beginning, everybody we hired was to help us take on more SEO work. Joe was a (?) . . .
Andrew: And then you would bring in the sales?
Wil: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah. I mean, I really, to be honest with you, I never actively sold. I don’t spend much time trying to sell. I spend a lot of time trying to deliver on my promises. And I believe when you do that, your clients become your sales force. And that’s got a lot more trust than me calling you up and telling you to use my service.
Andrew: I see. So did these guys know SEO, or did you teach them your system and they implemented it, and learned to develop it?
Wil: I taught them, because anybody that knew SEO, they were out of my range. I couldn’t afford them. And I also didn’t want the people with baggage. I mean, you know this. SEO’s one of the industries where people can take shortcuts to win.
Wil: And I kind of didn’t want somebody with baggage coming into me. So I figured, let me train people in the way that I believe SEO should be done, and that’s what we did.
Andrew: What did you train them? What was your system?
Wil: Oh, God, it was — “Here, throw it in the pool. I’ll never, ever, ever, ever let you drown.” Right? So it was like, “If you need me on a Saturday at 10:00 at night, I will be there to make sure you don’t drown.”
Andrew: But what was the pool? What was the process that they had to go through?
Wil: Oh, let’s see. I never trusted people with my clients, because they had to get my trust first, because all I had were my clients, and my reputation, so I didn’t want to just hire somebody and go like, “Hey, go work with my client.” I wanted to say, “Hey, how about we work on things together. I can kind of see how you work. And then if you’re good, and I like the way you work, then I’ll kind of expose you to the client.” So it was teaching people about how to research keywords, how to understand elements of HTML and how that affects search rankings. That was everything that we were kind of doing.
Andrew: OK. All right. You also incentivized them with a bonus system. What was the bonus system that you used? Now we’re getting to the dangerous territory but it made sense. What was the bonus system and how did it work at first?
Wil: So the way the bonus worked was it’s very altruistic and it’s very transparent. So what we said is, I’ve never really believed that I need to make like a ton of money, so I said, look, as the company does better, I want people to do better as well. Simple. So what happened is, once the company got to a certain point in profit, I said, well I don’t need much more than that, the company doesn’t need much more than that. So everything else that comes in after that, 50-cents goes to the company, 50-cents goes into a pot and as that pot grows, it gets divided up by everybody that’s been here for more than x-amount of time, which at the time I think was 2 years.
Andrew: And what was the amount that you said, we need just this amount?
Wil: Oh, God, I think it was like, I think the first time we did it, it was like $200,000 or something like that. And then when you blow that out, you end up with like 80-grand in the pot and 4 people who are all under 24- years-old eligible for $20,000 bonuses.
Andrew: Wow. So what do you do about that?
Wil: So you look at that check and you go, am I really going to write these checks, right? 22 or 23, like, my God, you’re barely making this much in your day-to-day.
Andrew: And it’s not them individually who earned it. It’s the team collectively that earned it and they may have been a small part of making this whole system work. Is that right?
Andrew: But they still, nevertheless, would get 15, 20-thousand dollars in bonuses because the company just blew out its goal.
Wil: I was going to say, not only did we blow out the goal, I have no idea how to set a goal. So I was setting very low goals because I was like, well, you know, this is better than going back and working at my old company. So I didn’t have that, oh we need to hit something that’s so high that then we’ll have this extra money left over. It was kind of low. Which is something else that I’ve learned. But yeah, I had that gut check going, am I really going to cut these checks. Well, yeah. Because if I don’t, what is my team going to believe about me? They’re going to believe that when I thought those checks were going to be 5 or 6-thousand or 7-thousand each, and it ended up 18 or 20 each, that I go guys, come on, this is crazy, I’m going to cut that back a little bit. Well, then, you reap what you sow and I don’t want people to treat me that way so why would I do that to others.
Andrew: All right. So one year you blow it out. You give out big checks because you committed to. People must be shocked. The next year, what do you do?
Wil: What’s interesting, that I learned, is people just kind of assume that the next year, they were just going to get a $20,000 check. It wasn’t like, oh, we need to blow this out, we need to have a great year and we need to do this amazing thing together. It was like, those people just got $20,000 checks, next year I’m getting a $20,000 check, right? So, we moved it back and we altered the plan. Any bonus program, obviously, is open to being tweaked. And I said, look, you know, the first 4 or 5 people that started with me, they were like dog years. So our 2 years together felt like more than 2 years, right? Well, then after we were more stable, the people that got in a little bit later, you didn’t take the same risks that these guys took. Well, that didn’t go over so well. We had a couple people call me all kind of names and this isn’t fair and blah, blah, blah. I’m like, it’s not fair that I’m making you wait 3 years to get a potential 18 to 20 thousand dollar check? I was like, screw it, go somewhere else and find out that that’s a generous offer.
Andrew: Did they?
Andrew: You lost people over this because you fired them or because you said if you don’t like it, go somewhere else and they left?
Wil: I fired them.
Andrew: You let them go. You said I don’t even want this resentment and I’m not going to keep you here, you did?
Wil: Well because you start feeling like shit when you write those checks. See, the beauty is that, the people that were there when we wrote those checks, I felt great about. I felt great about their contribution. I felt great to work with them and that they chose to come and work with me. I thought that was awesome. When you have a bonus program that was that aggressive at that time, it’s like you might as well slit your wrists if you don’t like the people you’re cutting those checks for, right? So, yeah, we let those people go.
Andrew: Wow. All right. What did those people do with the $20,000 checks that you gave them? How did their lives change? You don’t know?
Wil: I don’t know.
Andrew: Did you start seeing people drive fancy cars into the office? Did they start to make stupid decisions?
Wil: It wasn’t even any of my business, man. You know it’s one of those things where some of the people were big into volunteerism as well. And I’m like, I don’t know. One of the guys was a total hippie. He might have cut that whole $20,000 check and sent it into a charity, might have sent 10,000 or whatever. Some people paid off student loans. I know somebody went out and got a car. They’re like, sweet, I can pay my car off or whatever. But, I remember the first time that we gave those checks out, I told the guy who helped me to crack a program, “I want it to be like, ‘Oh shit’ money. I don’t want it to be like, ‘This is decent.'” Those first checks that we wrote for those people that were with us first and helped us to build this thing and get it off the ground, I wanted it to be substantial.
Andrew: It was. I could understand people who see their co-workers get this and hear that they don’t get it, feel like, ‘There’s a have and have not. Why am I on the outs here? This guy doesn’t love me as much as them.’ As an entrepreneur, how much of this is your fault for not knowing how to set up a good bonus, and how much is them?
Wil: Good question. I think it’s on both sides because I believed a little bit too much in the fact that that wouldn’t happen. My perception was if you’re only making 40 and you get a check for 18 or 20, you probably wouldn’t work at that kind of company that’s willing to create that kind of thing. I sure as hell should have had more foresight to see that, but I’m not a business guy. I didn’t swipe this to run a business. I started it because I believe in something that I wanted to build, so I definitely should have done a much better job on my due diligence and looking at the projections of how this would ultimately play out, but I also had no idea our company would grow like this. I never expected it. I never tried to make that happen. It was all a big surprise for me, especially early on.
Andrew: Where did you learn whatever you know about business, beyond through experience? Because you keep saying you’re not a business guy, but there are people in the audience right now who would kill to have a fraction of your understanding of business. You learned something. Let’s not be too humble here with the audience because they need to learn from the way that you did it.
Wil: There’s only one piece of advice I would have for folks that I got from someone, and it was while I was still with two people I met a guy named John Mason, and John was a professor at Penn, and he used to be a CFO of a bank. John said to me, “You need a board of advisers.” One of my fraternity brothers was like, “Your company doesn’t look like it’s BS. I need to connect you to my professor that’s teaching my MBA class.” I got connected to John, and John said, “You need a board of advisers,” which I believed in once he told me. My first company went under almost purely because my bosses were visionaries, but they didn’t know how to run a business. That’s why we went under. Our biggest competitor ended up being part of the chain that got bought by Microsoft for $6 billion, and we went under. There’s a difference when you both start at the same time and one company gets bought by Microsoft for six billion and another company goes under and can’t afford the rent anymore. It was because you got to have people around you that are seeing some things. Having a board of advisers was probably the best advice because then I could reach out to those guys and get their assistance and their advice and their help.
Andrew: If you were a funded entrepreneur, you can give those advisers a fraction of a percentage point in your business, and when you exited they would have a big windfall. You’re not. You’re bootstrapped. What do you have to give a board of advisers that would make them interested enough to spend time giving you feedback and caring about your business?
Wil: This answer’s going to be weird. They liked me. They felt like I was trying to do good shit and that I was a good kid trying to figure things out and do something good. I had a guy that was a CFO of a bank helping me get my books in order. I had two people that were helping with sales, one with marketing and pricing. These guys were all gray heads, and none of them ever asked for anything. I think they just wanted to see me do well, and I can’t believe that they did that. Obviously, I got to pay that forward myself. I think that was it.
Andrew: Part of your paying it forward is doing this interview for the audience that’s going to hopefully get enough out of this and then they will pay it forward and remember you the way that you’re remembering people like John. Can you take me through how you took a stranger and built a relationship where you both like each other and then asked her to be an adviser? If you take me through the story of one person, I could get a sense of how others in the audience could do this.
Wil: It’s weird because it wasn’t my idea. John was like, “You need a board of advisers.” I’m like, “I have two people. What are you talking about?” Then he’s like, “Trust me. You’ll appreciate this some day.” I’m like, “I don’t know anybody.” He’s like, “I got a couple of guys that can help you.” One of my clients at the time, because I only wanted that client perspective around me. Then I had a good lawyer friend that was a friend of John’s. I had a marketing guy that was a friend of John’s. Then I had my client, but those were our initial group and then a couple months later I brought in a guy to help me and eventually became a sales coach but, yeah, dude, it was basically all built by John and his buddies that have done big things over the years.
Andrew: All right. We talked about the nail salon and the hair salons and all those local mom & pop businesses that you did work for but you don’t get to go to a multimillion-dollar a year stage if you’re just building on the backs of mom & pop stores that you sell to individually. At some point you got to Crayola, to LinkedIn, I’ve got a list of companies that you’ve worked with. At some point you get to the big guys. How do you make that transition from mom & pop to Fortune 500?
Wil: Well, it was kind of natural because we never sell so what happens is those mom & pops are how we got to Crayola. It’s why I still help all those guys out whenever they have a question. I don’t charge them anything because they were there when the big companies didn’t think we were good enough, to be honest, that we were too small. So we have a great relationship with those companies that we initially started with but it was a completely natural progression because people on their boards worked at these types of companies and then they slowly got step by step by step and then all of the sudden, we’re working with a Fortune 25 client now. But if you trace all those things back, no one was ever pitched. I never approached anyone. I never – well, I cold-called some people in the beginning – but I never cold-called any of those clients and we never did an outreach program to them. We have never tried to sell our way into any company ever, not since we first started when I had to get Jill health insurance.
Andrew: So you’re saying that by working for someone at a local mom & pop store, one of the employees there moved on to work for a bigger company and then invited you and then referred you to someone else to who worked for a same size, big company or maybe even bigger and that’s how you progressed up?
Andrew: And did you do anything to encourage them to refer you beyond the quality of the job?
Wil: No. The one thing that we did do is we did rank on search engines. That was helpful. So while I never paid for ads, I did say, “Hey, we’ve got to prove to people that we know what we’re doing so it’s important for us to rank for some SEO keywords at the time so that people can see that we’re not full of crap and that we actually can deliver.” That brought in a couple of leads as well but that also is my style of marketing. It’s in- bound. I don’t want to go out and try to convince people that I’m good or that I know what I’m doing. I’d rather them kind of convince themselves on the way in or to be told by somebody that we’re good and that we’re worthwhile working with.
Andrew: Well, is it different because you’re not doing design, you’re doing measurable work? With SEO you can measure how effective you are and someone else can talk about that measurement, where with design it’s a little bit fuzzier. It might be more about trust and relationship, yes.
Wil: Absolutely, absolutely. That’s why I got into the search business, man. I don’t want to try to pitch people and talk to them about something that I can’t prove at the end that it was worthwhile or that it wasn’t. And I don’t mind losing. I’m not one of those people that’s got to always win. I mean, I love to win but I don’t mind losing but I like to know that I gave it my best and that, yeah, I just got my butt kicked by the search engines today. But that’s what I loved about it is I could prove everything with numbers so I wasn’t going into people and trying to find some way in and get them to, “Oh, yeah, we should use SEER some more. This is why you should use us.” I said the numbers should prove, and the reputation of the company, should prove why you should want to continue to work with us and not anything else.
Andrew: I see. You started out with search engine optimization where, of course, you can see how high you rank. Actually, you moved on then to pay-per-click and other online marketing, right? What came next after search engine optimization?
Wil: Pay-per-click came next. I was lucky to meet someone who was just great and I said, “I can build a business around this person.” So I was pumped that I found someone who I could say, “Yeah, I can build a business around you,” and it was a natural progression because we had clients who were saying, “Man, I wish you guys did PPC. I wish you guys did paid search.” I’m the kind of guy that’s always said, “I don’t do anything that I feel I’m not one of the best at doing,” because then your clients see through that. It feels kind of disingenuous for me to close a client on a deal knowing, “I’m so glad they didn’t talk to those guys. They would have found out that they’re a lot better than us.” So once I found someone I could build that business around, that’s when we launched.
Andrew: Your margin in the space, your revenue is big. You’re set to do even $6 million this year, if I understand right, right? You’re $5 million. You’re set to do even $6 million. You’re doing great but, as I understand in your space, the margins are really thin, right? So your take home as a business isn’t that high, is it?
Wil: I’ve got no idea what my margins are.
Andrew: But you know top line is one number, bottom line is another and the percentage difference.
Wil: But we don’t calculate it. I have a CLO who now needs to do that because we’re big enough and the numbers are big enough where we should pay attention but that never got me excited, like, “Oh, are we 27% or are we 40%?” I don’t know. What I know is that we’re growing like crazy, we’re wickedly profitable overall and we’re doing well. I’m pretty sure our margins are not razor thin but I don’t know exactly what they are. I just know that we are doing a great job for our clients and that the work we’re doing causes them to refer people to this day.
It’s funny. I just sat down here, coming back from a meeting with a huge company here in Philly and we’re working with four different divisions of their business and every single one of them was referred to us. We did a good job with one and then they told someone and then they told someone and they told somebody. So now we’re in this multibillion-dollar company all because we kicked ass the first time we got a chance and then everything kind of flowed from that and I know that we’re doing good enough to pay the bills and give out good bonuses to the people who are choosing to come work with us.
Andrew: If someone in my audience ends up listening to this and saying, “I’d like to get my start, or maybe I’m a little further ahead in my career. I’m going to go work for Wil at SEER,” and they get the job and they look at you day to day, what would they say, “Aha, that’s what makes him happiest. This part of the job is what I can see he gets psyched about,” what is that thing?
Wil: It’s a toss-up, toss-up. So it’s between working with our clients, like I actually love the work. I think entrepreneurs so often, they want to get away from the work and run the business because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to hire people to do the work and you’re supposed to run it all and I’m more like, “No, I started this business because I knew what I loved to do and I never want to get away from that.” Actually doing the client work makes me very happy.
The other part is building a culture that the name of the company means something so that when you say you work at SEER, that people in our industry know that means that you kick a lot of ass but that you also take the time to care about people in your community and do something great within your community. That’s the other thing that gets me out of bed too. It’s really exciting to see the impact that our team is able to have on various charities and organizations around the country and around the world even. Some people work even around the world with different charities. That’s also very warming and makes me feel very good about the work we’re doing because it all started with me not getting an opportunity to volunteer at Chop so I can’t get away from what caused all this to happen in the first place.
Andrew: April, who pre-interviewed you, said that she asked you, “How are you different as a result of building this business?” and one of the things that you said that was different about you is you’re preachy. You have very strong beliefs. About what?
Wil: About how people should treat people. My take on it is be honest. It’s funny. Like, on my blog, I just talk about it’s shit that we learned in the sandbox. It’s isn’t like some, “Oh, I never thought of business that way.” If you’ve got bad news, tell the client the freaking bad news. They’ll trust you and if they fire you, they fire you. Have the competence and have the integrity to man up when you lose because we all want to raise the trophy when we win. I know I do. I want to be walking around the office, “Yeah, we’re kicking ass!” So when we get our butts kicked, don’t try to sugar-coat that. So I just try to do the basic things that we learned in the sandbox. Treat other people well. Try to do right by people. Do things that when at the end of the night, you put your head on the pillow, you feel good about what you put out there in the world. As long as I feel good about what I’m doing, it makes me want to keep moving.
Andrew: Do you remember your first million?
Wil: Kind of. I mean, it was just crazy to see. It was just another digit.
Andrew: Another digit where, on your internal system?
Wil: We open up Quickbooks. You look at it, you go, “Oh my God, there’s two commas.” So, yeah, that was kind of neat but it wasn’t like, “Oh, we’re a million!” I used to tell my team that we’d never get over 10 people because I never wanted to have a company of a bunch of people I didn’t know. So now that we’re pushing close to 60 actually, we just had a bunch of hires from the pre-interview until now, one of my bigger struggles is how do we keep that kind of family atmosphere because it’s what I always wanted was to have a company where I knew something about everybody in the company and that connection’s really important to me too and that’s something I struggle with trying to maintain.
Andrew: What else do I want to know about your system? Oh, the bonus pool. So now you’ve got more people and you’ve learned a little bit about how to give incentivized bonuses. What did you learn? How do you do it now actually?
Wil: So, it’s changing again, it changes every year because I learn something else. But really the way we do it now is there is a cap, there’s a max. So, you look at your salary and it’s like, maybe your max is thirty percent or whatever, right? So, then the bonus pool is no longer completely uncapped, right? So, that’s one thing, another thing we do differently it’s not public. We found that creating haves and have not’s is the wrong strategy, even if it’s transparent. So, sometimes you believe so hard in something that it’s like we should be a transparent company. Well you realize that a hundred percent transparency isn’t always great. You don’t go walking down the street telling people they’re ugly, you know some things you should probably keep to yourself. And even in the business world it’s probably best, although it’s kind of altruistic to say, you know what, we’re going to take this number, we’re going to post this number up on the wall, and everybody that’s been here for two years you divide that number. The problem is that anytime you make a shift in the bonus program, there’s people who forget that you’ve said that and all they look at is the number on the wall and think, I’m going to get that next year. So, those are some of the bigger changes that we’ve, that we made around our bonus program.
Andrew: All right, let me do a quick plug here for something that relates to what we’ve talked about. And then I want to talk about sleeping in the street, and other ways that your life has changed as a result of building SEER. And the plug is for anyone who is already a Mixergy premium member, I’ve got to tell you to go to mixergypremium.com and check out the course that James Kennedy the founder of Pie hole TV did. He said look Andrew you keep talking to entrepreneurs who cold called and got sales and got customers but you never dig in to how they do it and the rest of us are left to think it’s all about just having, buying the right ads and placing, having the right conversions online. He said he figured out how to make phone calls, he did it, he’s built up the business with it and he offered to come and teach it. So, if you’re interested and you’re saying to yourself, I can’t get enough traffic to my site, I need to find out a way to convert some of the people that are already on my site into customers, check out what James did. He had this whole process laid out that he goes through, in fact let me just quickly share Will, with you and the audience what he did. He said, I don’t have very many people coming to my site, I’m already giving a free e-book to anyone who gives me their email address because I want to create a relationship with the few people who do come to my site. But, it’s still not converting enough because there aren’t enough, I’m still not getting enough people because I don’t have much traffic.
So, in addition to asking for an email address he asked for a phone number too and then as soon as someone gave him their email and phone number they got their guide, the book that he offered them but they also got a phone call right away. And in that phone call he said, hey did you get the book, is there anything else I can do, can I follow up with you a week later to see how this is going for you, to see if the book worked out right. I see you’re smiling, you’re nodding. And then here’s the next thing that he did. He said he followed up exactly when he said he would and that would blow people’s minds. He would put it on the calendar, he would follow up and that kind of process, because he’s not a good sales person, he doesn’t speak nearly as good as you, as well as you, and he hates speaking. It feels to me, just talking to him, he hates sales, the way that you don’t have sales people, he doesn’t want to be a sales person. But, he was able to close sales just by using this process, so I asked him to teach it, it’s there, if you’re a Mixergy premium member just go to mixergypremium.com and just take that course, it’s there, it’s part of your program. And if you’re not, I hope you go and sign up to mixergypremium.com because you’ll get that course and dozens of others. And also as a side note that’s what keeps Mixergy growing, that’s why we’re able to do pre-interviews with people like Will, and do research and to really put this stuff out there on a regular basis. So, mixergypremium.com I guarantee you’ll love it. So, Wil.
Andrew: One way that your life changed is you slept on the street between the time that April and I talked to you, why?
Wil: So, I’ve always worked with The Covenant House, they’re all over the country in Canada and Brazil and some other places. And I’ve always worked with them because I feel that homeless kids, it’s sad that they’re kids, right? Like kids on the street who have nowhere to go and The Covenant House makes sure that they’ve got a bed and that they’re taken care of and all that. So, they approached me with something that they called like a CEO sleep out and they said, would you be interested? And I said, sure I’d be interested, if I’m here and not travelling and funny we have it and I wasn’t travelling and last Thursday, after winning the small business of the year award with the Chamber of Commerce, I changed in my car and had my wife drive me out to The Covenant House where I slept on the street from 10:15 ’til 6:25. It’s funny how you know the exact times when you sleep outside on a night when it’s 34 degrees.
Andrew: And who helped you set up your homeless home?
Wil: Oh, so there was a kid, I had a kid, I think his name was Rashan, I think his name was, and he basically got a box and a sleeping bag. He helped me to figure out how you actually set up the sleeping bag and the box so that when the wind blows it doesn’t hit you and it keeps you warmer. My box collapsed at one point because I didn’t set it up right in the middle of the night. He was really helpful and helped me get everything set up.
Andrew: Unreal. I see on a lot of entrepreneur sites that if you really want to get people excited about entrepreneurship and really want to get them to keep watching and feel motivated the thing to do is talk about the cars that you have, take pictures from these beautiful hotels that you get to stay in, and the homes.
What I find in talking to real entrepreneurs is that yes, we sometimes want cars, we want all those things but this, what you are talking about is what we really want. To have some impact on the people who we work with. To have pride in the people who we work with. To go and sleep on the street and have this kind of experience. To have the kind of experience you had with your wife. You took her on a trip with you. You get to do that. DO you know the one I’m talking about?
Wil: We go on tons of trips. There are two trips that stand out the most. My wife started a non-profit when she was about twenty. That makes it 12 years ago. She went to this really rural area of Nicaragua where she started a non-profit. I went down there. You are brushing your teeth with gutter water because they don’t have clean water. That’s what she is there to help them do. It was important to me. What matters to me most in my life is spending time with my wife and my dog. It was important for me to see her baby.
The other thing that’s really important for me when it comes to travel is that my wife can come with me. i didn’t get married to not see her. I got married to spend time with her. That means I’m traveling and I’m logging up the miles. I’ll say that if I can’t go with her then I am getting my ass back home as soon as possible because I like to spend time with her. Just recently she was in Nicaragua when I was in London. I said, ‘I’ll be there for three days.’ I’ll go fly to London and fly back because she was coming home and I wanted to make sure I saw her. It’s just really important for me to spend time with my wife whether she can come with me on any of the trips I take, because I take a ton of them, or I can go down to what she works on and see her baby. I can see what she has been putting her heart and soul into for years.
Andrew: All right. Here is what I have to do now to end this interview; I asked you at the beginning of this interview, ‘How do I make this a win for you?’. ‘What’s in it for you?’ Sometimes entrepreneurs say, ‘You know, I just want to do this to do it, but if you could mention the fact that we are looking for jobs, that we are hiring it would help.’ You didn’t do that. I would do it of course if you had asked. Now even though you didn’t ask I am going to ask you instead. I see your energy. I see the kind of person you are. I know that even though I have an audience of mostly entrepreneurs there are some younger people that want to be entrepreneurs in the future who can use a boss like you. Someone who creates inspiration the way that you do in people. Someone who has a process that they could learn from. An entrepreneur that they could role model by being around day to day. Where do they find out about jobs? How do they find out about getting to know you if there is someone who wants to be mentored by you more closely than obviously they have been here in this interview?
Wil: Sure. I’m not going anywhere man. I’m pretty easy to hit up on Twitter, Facebook or Google Plus. Yes, I use Google Plus. I’m one of the few.
Andrew: Because you’re an SEO.
Wil: Exactly. I’m available. I’m not trying to get away from helping people however I can. So you better believe I’m always available. If people wanted to work with us, I think that’s great. Obviously we are looking for great people. We are always looking for great people. We spent the last three months basically telling clients we couldn’t take on more work because we don’t have enough great people. So yes, we are definitely always looking for amazing people to join our team. The secret to working with me is to have a site that you have already tried to optimize. Even if you have no idea what you are doing. Show me that you care enough to try to learn a little bit. Not just, “Hey, SEO sounds really interesting.” Then I say “Oh, great. So where is your website?” ‘Well I don’t have on.’ I say, “Eh”.
They are kind of easy to set up. I know Geocities is gone but they are kind of easy to set up and play around with. I’ve always liked people who come to us with some level of fire or some level of ‘I tried this and I think I like it’ versus someone who says “Yeah, I kind of want to know SEO.’ There are not a lot of barriers to entry in learning SEO.
Andrew: Great place to leave it. I’m also going to add that if you are a student in school find a way to recruit Will to come speak at your school. I don’t know if you are open to it but I urge you guys to say Thank you for this interview as I always ask you to. If you are a student then say ‘By the way, my student entrepreneurship club would love to hear from you if you are around.’ Thank you, Wil, for doing this interview. I’m obviously very excited about doing this. I knew this would be a good interview because of the place where you came. You came to me from Justin Premick[sp], an old friend of mine from A. Weber. He said, “You should do this interview. You’ve got to meet Andrew.” I knew then that would be a good introduction. He’s a great guy.
Wil: How do you know Justin?
Andrew: I know Justin because I needed help with my site years ago. In fact, I don’t even remember at what point. I needed help back when I was starting and he helped me out and then we became friends. He was one of the first people to teach a mixer g premium course. He helped me out that way. He’s a good friend.
Wil: He, Tom and all those guys over there are great dudes. I love working with them. They are just the best guys.
Andrew: Yes. In an industry full of people who are shady, I mean, e- mail space, there are few companies there are few companies that are good and he is at one of them.
Wil: Yes. A ton of good guys.
Andrew: All right. Wil, thank you for doing this interview. Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye.
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