When you first start out in business, it’s an incredible adrenaline rush. The excitement, the possibilities, the potential. But if you’re not very careful, all that rapidly gives way to an overwhelming reality: you need to win clients. And where the hell do you find them?
I was not exempt from this unfortunate predicament at the start of my entrepreneurial career. Indeed, even now, I still have the constant need to win clients, to sell my services (and soon to be my book and courses). That is the nature of business; an endless cycle of finding people to pay you, delivering what they paid for, then convincing them to buy more while you work on winning more new clients.
My business began in 2011. It was little more than me doing some freelance writing work initially. Low-paying, inconsistent work, through a website that didn’t have enough jobs for me to make a living wage. And yet, that was the seed that started it all. If I could earn money selling my skills, I could build a real business; I just needed to win more clients.
At the time, I was working from my mum’s box room. An unfortunate incident with my ex-fiance left me homeless and forced me to pay off a substantial amount of debt he had amassed in my name. To say the situation wasn’t ideal would be an understatement. But I had gumption. I had moxie. And I was quite determined to avoid spending the rest of my life living with my mother.
There was just one problem: I knew nothing about marketing.
The Tale Of Learning How (Not) To Win Clients
So, I did what most budding entrepreneurs do: I took online marketing courses.
Honestly, I took a LOT of online marketing courses.
My experiences with them were mixed. Some were worth it. Some definitely weren’t. There is one in particular that sticks out in my memory. It led me to the creation of the successful marketing strategy I eventually used to win clients, build a great client base, and kickstart my career as an SEO expert.
Ironically, the course itself did not teach content marketing, or SEO, or even tell me I should be doing SEO.
Rather, it focused on Facebook and how to build a hugely successful business off the back of a Facebook business page.
This was problematic advice. It did lead to me figuring out how to win clients without running ads or spending a fortune on lead generation. But it did so accidentally. I’ll explain how in a moment. For now, let me take you back to the very beginning of my entrepreneurial journey. When I was doing an online course that was meant to be teaching me how to market my new business…
Back In The Day…
In those early days, I had ZERO advertising budget. I couldn’t run Facebook ads; I’d barely scraped together the money needed to pay for the course I was taking. And here it was, telling me that in order to succeed, I had to spend more money.
Not to be defeated, I knuckled down and tried harder. I scared up some money by slaving away at the keyboard, day after day, hour after hour, all for an absolute pittance, just so I could pay for the Facebook ads that would ‘make’ my business.
Yep, you guessed it. They failed spectacularly. I didn’t win a single new client, or any revenue whatsoever, as a result of what that course taught me. While I didn’t waste nearly as much on social media ads as a lot of others doing the same course, it was a significant amount for me, in that it was all I had at the time.
Bear in mind I was still living with my mother at this point, working out of her box room, desperate for independence. (Not that there’s anything wrong with my mother, she’s lovely. She did a sterling job of getting me back on my feet. But I was in my mid-twenties. I had no social life, no friends in the area, no money to visit friends elsewhere, and no way to buy (or even rent) my own place. Some weeks, I didn’t even have money for food. So I’m eternally grateful to my mum for looking after me during that time. Still, I couldn’t expect her to support me forever, nor would I wish to be dependent my entire life!)
The failure of my efforts at this stage was extremely demoralising. Like many entrepreneurs I’d started out with such high hopes, I’d worked so very hard, and found it all came to nothing in the end. That is heart breaking. Soul destroying. And if you’re not careful can prevent you from continuing to try.
Imposter Syndrome Set In…
I’d been sold on the course largely by the notion that I could have a ‘tribe’ (we don’t use that term anymore, I prefer pack these days) of ideal clients magically flocking to me, simply because I was posting on Facebook. This concept that I didn’t have to win clients, or find clients, because they would find me, really sunk its claws in.
And yet, I did all the things, but my ‘tribe’ never materialised. And when I say I did everything, I’m not exaggerating. I was posting regularly, being consistent, having a strong brand, bringing value, telling not selling, obeying the almighty 80/20 rule, engaging with other people’s content, posting in groups, sharing free advice, sharing free offers, and still, NOTHING.
I began to feel it was my fault. It was so obvious: I had no business trying to be a business woman.
That was a lark for people who knew what they were doing. Who had real skills in marketing and could sell themselves.
The spiral of depression that ensued was immense. All my hard work, and what little money I had, all gone to waste. My hopes and dreams of supporting myself through a business of my own suddenly seemed utterly futile.
Fear woke me in the night, a crushing weight on my chest that threatened to suffocate me if I thought about it too much.
Yet what alternative did I have?
At this point, I’d been getting treatment for bipolar disorder for a year or two. And the help helped, I was certainly doing better than I had been pre-diagnosis. But I was nowhere being well enough to tackle a regular 9-5 job. Returning to my previous career as an archaeologist wasn’t – for mental health reasons – an option.
I wanted a life. A career. This ‘business’ I’d been struggling to build was it; I had to make the best of it.
The one perk that came with the online courses I’d been doing was the community. Most came with dedicated Facebook groups, filled with people just like me. As it turned out, it was from these wonderful women that I learned the most important lesson available where marketing was concerned.
The ‘Gurus’ Didn’t Know Shit…
One day, I got chatting with a friend in the group for this course that was meant to be teaching me how to win clients and instead had wasted all my time and money. “I’m just not good enough,” I moaned. “I’ve done everything she’s taught me, and it just won’t work!”
“Well,” my friend said, “why do you assume that’s because you’re not good enough?”
I blinked, confused. “Well, it works for everyone else!”
“Does it?” She raised an eyebrow. “Or did it?”
This was an epiphany moment for me. I can’t quite describe how monumental the shift in my thinking was in that moment. The realisation was simple: all the people raving about the power of this course had become successful at least a year or two earlier.
While a couple of years may not seem like a big deal, in the world of digital marketing, it’s monumental.
What works one year may not work the next.
The methods that allowed early members of that course to rapidly build a HUGE organic Facebook following, immediately capitalise on their audience, and create HUGE amounts of revenue simply didn’t work anymore.
We’d been fed outdated advice.
Not because it was a lie – these methods had genuinely worked successfully – but because the person running the course had failed to realise Facebook had fundamentally changed. It had worked. It didn’t anymore.
The lady running the course had built her own success using this method. Yet she had done so at a time when Facebook was a free platform. When organic reach was effortless. You could put yourself in front of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people just by making a few posts.
Everything was shiny. Everything was new.
There was hardly anyone else on the platform offering marketing advice (at least, compared to the veritable slew of ‘experts’ peddling themselves these days).
You didn’t have to advertise to get in front of people, so when you did, you got in front of a massive number of people for very little money.
And because there weren’t many doing what you were doing, those people weren’t burnt out from seeing fifty million almost identical adverts promising exactly the same thing as you. Your offer was new, unique, something they hadn’t seen before.
These days (and even at the time I was taking the course) you can’t scroll your Facebook feed without seeing some marketing expert telling you what you need to do to win clients.
Back what the course runner was starting up, Marie Forleo’s B School wasn’t a thing yet. Marie was still recording her earliest videos from her sofa. In the intervening years, Marie formed B School, which became phenomenally successful. Meanwhile, the ‘guru’ I was currently learning from had created her marketing course, and it was… well, people bought it.
I bought it.
I kinda wish I hadn’t now.
The difference was this: the guru I was learning from berated B School and Marie Forleo. She put Marie down with the old ‘Marie’s not all that’ tactic. She told us that she’d taken B School herself, and there was nothing in it that wasn’t also in her course.
This may well have been true at the time. I’ve never taken B School myself so I can’t compare. But the salient point my ‘guru’ missed is that Marie Forleo comprehends how the digital world works:
Marketing is constantly evolving.
The way these early successes did things in the very early days couldn’t achieve the same success a few years later.
Unfortunately for me, I wasn’t doing B School.
Honestly, one of my biggest regrets from my early years is ignoring my gut and doing cheaper options instead of investing in a single course that could have told me everything they did and a lot more besides.
But I didn’t do that.
I squandered what little money I had spare on training from false Gurus who, while well-meaning, did a lot of unintentional damage.
They didn’t understand what they were teaching wouldn’t work for fledgling entrepreneurs starting from scratch. When I started, Facebook was beginning to monetise and starting a huge shift that would see the death of organic results. By the time I was working on building a Facebook page, the only way to get Facebook to achieve the same results for me was to have a decent advertising budget. You also needed to get a professional to run it, or learn a lot more about PPC campaigns than was being taught by the ‘experts’ who had never really had to use them.
Bear in mind the nature of PPC advertising itself was evolving during this time. The complexity of Facebook ads has grown year to year. Ads manager didn’t even exist at the start. Targetting was far simpler. There were no iOS updates to worry about. Success stories from the early days didn’t need to use ads, and when they did, they were painfully simple to setup, and easily achieved great ROI.
By the time I was trying to do it, you need to spend hundreds if not thousands a month to create the same results.
This was money I didn’t have. Most entrepreneurs don’t have that kind of money to invest in advertising at the start. Startups and small businesses frequently can’t afford it either. And yet, entrepreneurs and businesses were succeeding at the time I was trying to get things going. It could be done. Just not in the way I’d need taught.
So I knuckled down again and learned a way to win clients without running ads: SEO.
How To Win Clients Without Running Ads…
As it turned out, I’m exceptionally good at SEO. After doing it for a while and realising what great results it created, I tweaked the services I offered to clients and started creating SEO content and running SEO campaigns for them. All the while, I kept learning. Fleshing out the tactics I’d learned to drive traffic to my website with other methods that actively captured and nurtured leads to win clients.
My revenue went up, and up, and kept going up. My business grew. My debts were paid, I paid off the mountain of debt, moved out of the box room and into a house of my own, bought a new car, and spent far more than is reasonable on my geeky tendencies.
I could point to the success I created in my own business and say, look, this is how you win clients without running ads. It’s certainly true. But I actually feel that the best example of just how powerful SEO is comes from a period when I’d taken a step away from my business – and my SEO and content marketing efforts – for a while.
In 2018 I began working at Acrylic Digital, and my own business was temporarily abandoned. I had a new challenge (and it was a fairly monumental one). Acrylic is a fabulous little local business, but there was so much to do, both in terms of delivering client work and marketing the three separate branches of the business. I had very little time for my own stuff while I was working there.
Which is, of course, why I left: I needed to get back to building my own empire.
Why did I start working there in the first place? Honestly, that imposter syndrome was still lingering. My marketing efforts were so successful I had more clients work than I could handle alone. I was at a point in my business where I’d started hiring people. It wasn’t just me anymore, I had a team (someone to do social media, someone to do the technical stuff, someone to handle my newsletter etc.). I was seriously considering opening an office and expanding into a full-blown digital marketing agency.
It felt like the logical next step, but also like a huge, impossible dream. There was this voice in my head, “Who the fuck are you to run an agency? You can’t do that! You don’t know what you’re doing.”
I may have long since left my mum’s box room, got my own place, and built a successful business, but somewhere inside me, that girl still dwelt. She was scared and desperate and had no clue what she was doing.
Despite the results I’d achieved (for myself and others), I still lacked faith in my abilities because they didn’t seem real. I’d learned so much, but I didn’t have a degree in Marketing. As an academic who was studying for a PhD that felt hugely important. I’d never had a ‘real job’ doing marketing, SEO and copywriting.
Of course, this was nonsense – just because I was doing it freelance didn’t mean it was any less valid than working as an employee. But logic seldom quells anxiety. So, when a digital marketing agency two minutes down the road from my house advertised for a part-time content marketing manager on a three-month contract, I thought, “Perfect!”. Let’s apply.
If they hire me, I must be good enough. My skills must be ‘real’. If I do a good job for them, I must be good enough.
As it turned out, I was so good they wanted me to stay full-time. Shortly after I was promoted to Head of Marketing. This was a hugely validating experience, not to mention great fun, and it led to me working on many varied projects.
I hadn’t abandoned my dreams of running my own agency or continuing to build my own business. I was just taking a beat to spread my wings, quash that inner sceptic. Another major factor was that I was planning on having a baby, and the prospect of maternity leave was very appealing!
In the interim, my website was still live. I’d done nothing with it for a year, but it still existed. One day I had an email enquiry come through from a lovely lady in America who was struggling with her website copy. She was about to open a new, high-tech wellness centre focused on biohacking and other technology-enhanced holistic treatments.
I was intrigued, it was such a cool project, and I happily agreed to write her copy for the new website.
She loved what I wrote and soon asked me about consulting on the project as their SEO specialist. One thing led to another, and it turned into a 12-month contract for a full-blown content marketing plan. This included the website copy, as well as ongoing blog posts and SEO work, social media campaigns, PR outreach, and yes, PPC.
I’m not sure exactly how much revenue ended up coming in from this one client, as there were one-off projects that were added on top of the contract, the contract ran for more than 12 months. But, COVID hit halfway through causing them to temporarily close and us to pause certain elements of their marketing while they dealt with the pandemic.
All told, however, it was well over £100K. I suspect it was more like £150K, but I’d have to do maths to be certain. And I despise maths.
How had she found me? Was it an ad? Was it an email campaign? Was it from a costly feature in a high-profile media publication?
No, it was SEO.
She wanted someone who could write shit hot copy for a wellness business. She’d Googled and found me.
Bearing in mind she was in Texas, USA, and I was in Cheshire, England, so it wasn’t the fact I was 2 miles down the road that made Google show me to her above everyone else online.
And this was on a website I hadn’t updated for almost a year.
But SEO never dies.
What I achieved for my business through blogging and SEO didn’t cost me a penny. It took time and effort, sure. To learn how to blog and optimise for search. To create all the content needed to do it effectively.
And this isn’t an isolated incident. Ads are still not the main pillar of my marketing strategies. They’re not the centre of things for me and weren’t for Acrylic while I ran their marketing. Same for most of the clients I work with. Ads are run to augment the efforts done elsewhere with, you guessed it, SEO. Content marketing.
Ads are great at raising the visibility of your offerings and driving more traffic to your website. But unless you have a ridiculously high advertising budget, you’re never, ever going to get the same results from PPC as you can achieve with SEO. Why?
Any single piece of well-optimised content has the potential to attract hundreds if not thousands of visitors every single month. To generate the same traffic through PPC you’d have to pay for every single click. That’s hundreds of thousands of clicks every month. Even at a very low CPC, a month’s worth of traffic will cost you more than creating the piece of content.
And you will still need to create the content.
You need time, patience, and persistence to rock a solid content marketing and SEO strategy yourself, but it won’t cost you a penny as you’re willing to put in the time needed to learn and execute. If you’re looking to outsource your marketing and have a budget to work with, my advice for most (there are some exceptions) business models is to focus on SEO and content creation.
Reminiscing on all this got me curious. I’ve wondered, on and off, how well the so-called ‘gurus’ I learned from in the early years really did in their own businesses. Writing this got me thinking again, and I did a little digging.
By which I mean stalking.
By which I mean I googled the company records of the person who trashed B School and made me feel like absolute shit, and guess what?
In the history of her limited company, which has been going nearly a decade now, she has earned less profit than I made from that single client. The one that found me because I got really good at SEO, after all that guru’s bad advice failed to help win a single client.
That guru actually made a massive loss most years she’s been trading. Of the years she did make a profit, only one of those years saw a substantial profit.
I was genuinely curious to know how much success she had found in the era that followed her initial setup and success. The era that saw the death of organic reach and growth on Facebook, and the dawn of an increasingly commercialised Facebook that demands ever-increasing sums of money.
According to the official figures, the overall profitability of her business is negative by tens of thousands of pounds. Now, one assumes that she’s paid herself a substantial amount. So, while the business is running at a loss, she’s presumably had plenty to live on.
Even so, it gave me pause.
It’s no small thing to create a business that can fully support you with a good wage. Certainly, you could argue those figures may have been fiddled for the sake of the tax man. But still, this is a far cry from the impression she peddles of her success.
It’s an even further cry from the genuine success of other marketing coaches to whom she compares herself. Like Marie Forleo – so thoughtlessly (jealously?) trashed as ‘worthless’ – who has a net worth of about $14 million.
The lesson? There are a few lessons you could draw from this story.
That all that glitters in the online world is most assuredly not gold.
To take the advice from self-proclaimed gurus with a pinch of salt; look for the proof in the pudding before investing in them and their methods. And not only that, ensure they are currently achieving great results. Look for recent case studies, current testimonials, and other in-the-moment social proof. Snoop at their net worth and company value.
And be a sponge! Absorb everything. Use what works. Discard what doesn’t. Learn from the failures. Grow from the mistakes.
Adapt As You Go…
More than anything, I think the takeaway here is this: few things are more valuable in life, and business, than self-awareness and adaptability.
That guru still teaches the same methods that were outdated a decade ago.
Yes, she’s (presumably) made enough money to live comfortably, but at what expense? The fact her business went four consecutive years running at a substantial loss indicates she suffered from failing to adapt. What worked for her at the start does not work anymore. It hasn’t for years. Yet she has persisted in using the same methods – and teaching others those methods.
I like to think she’s genuinely oblivious to the fact she’s taking money from people and teaching them things that will never make them anywhere near as successful as she pretends to be. It doesn’t speak well for her sense of self-awareness, but at least it would make her a nicer person than the alternative.
If you take nothing else from this story, remember this: in the world of digital marketing, everything is fluid.
Nothing stays the same.
Seek a strategy that fits what we’re trying to achieve. Implement that strategy, constantly re-assessing and adapting it as you go. Develop it as you grow your business, adapting it to fit with new goals, stretches, directions, and changes to your platforms and industry. Create a marketing strategy that is a living entity, capable of self-development, growth, and change. That way, it continues to be a good fit no matter how our goals or circumstances change. It continues to work no matter how the online world and its technology evolve.
SEO was the strategy that fit what I was trying to achieve: a steady stream of traffic and leads, ensuring I consistently win new clients.
Yet SEO is not something I learned in a single course a decade ago and haven’t had to rethink since. It’s a constantly changing, constantly evolving, constantly expanding sphere. It is only one element of content marketing, which in itself is continually changing.
I will never stop learning.
The fact I’m now teaching SEO and content marketing does not mean I see any of my lessons as absolutes. I expect to repeatedly revisit my blog posts, book, and course to ensure they’re up-to-date. My book repeatedly includes encouragement to sign up for updates so that those who have bought it know when things change and what to do about it. So they’re aware of anything they need to tweak, add, or stop doing.
One Last Thing…
One final thing I really must say. I haven’t named names here for a reason. I have no interest in shaming this person. In some ways, she did help me. In others, she severely hindered me at a crucial stage of my business development. But I learned from many people at that time – I was (and still am) a course junkie.
So please, don’t try to guess.
You’re almost certainly wrong and will think badly of someone for no reason.
And don’t try to get the name out of me because I won’t tell you, for the same reason I thought it incredibly unprofessional of this person to trash Marie Forleo, no matter what her personal opinion of her course might be.
Discretion is the better part of valour.