How we built a “proper SEO agency” in 12 months

By Aaron Rudman-Hawkins
January 2, 2020
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Some of you reading this will know me, some of you won’t…

For those of you who don’t know me, and therefore, don’t get inundated with my LinkedIn updates, I’ll give you a quick whistle-stop update of why I’m writing this post.

Over the past couple years, I have been documenting the trials and tribulations of growing a business through my LinkedIn updates. Telling my story and just being honest (brutally honest, truth be told), I’ve found, has really resonated with people.

My network has increased significantly, alongside my business and I’ve kept everyone ‘in the loop’ along the journey with my LinkedIn posts.

As we’ve approached the end of 2019 after a whirlwind year, I have decided to take it one step further and document our year with this blog post.

After all, there is a 1300-character limit on LinkedIn posts; that’s never enough to write what is going on!

Let’s look back at the year my agency found itself…

It feels like a lifetime ago now, but I started 2019 just like I had done for the previous 5 years of running Evergreen; working from my converted loft at home.

I had recently found George – my SEO Manager at the time and now our Head of SEO. Like me, he worked from home. With regular Skype calls, Slack conversations and emails – the two of us (with a couple of part-time helpers) ran The Evergreen Agency together for a few months – very successfully.

It was an exciting time and there was a very definite feeling in the air that something incredible was happening.

I had drawn up a business plan six months earlier with how I was going to go from being a “one-man-band” agency with a couple part-time helpers to a “proper agency”.

Finding George in late 2018 was a key milestone. He was the first person I had ever met that “got it” like I did. His interview turned into a 2-hour SEO marathon of shared experiences, ideas and how Google had evolved – two total SEO geeks in a room over a beer, you can imagine!

So how did it go from just George and me to a whole team in 12 months?

George and I knew that if we were to grow the agency, we needed great people.

But where do you find great people?

The answer? By holding lots of interviews and never giving up. Over the past 12 months I have conducted at least 70+ phone interviews and had 25+ face-to-face interviews.

My days were filled with interviews, networking, presenting and just generally running the agency while George was focused on managing the clients. We only had a modest number of clients, but it was more than enough to keep George and our couple of part-timers busy, with me helping by managing a handful of the accounts.

It was busy, but it worked. We just knew we needed more people like us.

At the same time as all of this was going on, I got a call from a commercial letting agent asking if I was “still looking for an office space”, “still” I thought? I haven’t even started looking….

But then I remembered, I had registered my details on this agent’s website about 3 years ago when I first came across Willows Gate in Stratton Audley.

I visited a friend at one of the units at Willows Gate a few years back, and loved the style of the converted barns, the exposed beams, the location, how quiet it was – it was perfect and I remember thinking ‘one day I’ll have a proper office like this’.

That agent had obviously kept my details all this time and, just as we were starting to recruit, he called me up to say Unit 1 was becoming available in the summer – and did I want it?

Fate?

I was chuffed to bits and was straight down there to view the next day. I loved it the minute I walked in and alas, it was signed within days.

It was a scary thing to do as my current rent was £0 – working at home – but it felt right, and I had confidence in what we were doing.

Enter Naomi & James

Skip forward to early March. After numerous wasted interviews, George and I were wondering if we would have to look into having freelancers work remotely to cast a wider net for talent. But who should work through the door of Coffee #1 in Bicester, but the lovely Naomi.

So eloquent, she was well prepared for her interview and made a great first impression (sorry Naomi if you blush reading this but it’s true), she was great, and we were all impressed. I say “all” as unbeknown to Naomi I had invited Harriet (my wife) and George to join me on the interview as well.

It was so important to me to get the right person, that I figured;

  • I’ll do the interview
  • George can do the technical questions
  • Harriet can ensure she will “fit” in with what we’re trying to create (she is a great judge of character)

Fortunately for us and Naomi, we all agreed Naomi was exactly what we needed. She started in April and has been incredible every single day since.

Before Naomi had even started, another young whipper-snapper came nervously walking into that same coffee shop for his interview – James, with no experience his opening line made me laugh “I know I’m massively under-qualified for this job but I loved the sound of it so thought I would try”.

I liked James instantly and then he went onto blow me away and tell me how prior to his interview he had watched our entire SEO video training course on our website – that is over 12 hours of me rabbiting on about SEO, more than enough for anyone.

Here was a young guy with no SEO experience but clearly a passion and hunger for learning. Again, George and I were super impressed, and his experience didn’t matter. I could see myself in him and after telling me how he had been for countless interviews and been rejected time and time again, he needed a break and I was the man to give him that break (and boy has he paid me back since – James’s work ethic is amazing!).

So, by May the spring was upon us and The Evergreen Agency had moved from my home office to Perch, a co-working space in Bicester.

We loved it, Naomi and James were based there 5 days a week with George and I intermittently popping into work with them, support them and collaborate.

I was running around like a mad man going to networking events, doing presentations and talking to lots of fantastic businesses. People were becoming increasingly aware of The Evergreen Agency. People were saying how they had seen my LinkedIn updates and were loving our developing story.

We had roped in another very experienced freelancer Abdi to help us as we were winning client after client and had to keep up with the demand.

Here is a picture of a team meeting from June, in Perch, another of our team is even on the screen behind us. Some serious faces in this one as we were so busy, Naomi and James felt a little like rabbit-in-headlights with how much they had to learn.

Agency life isn’t for everyone, but fortunately, both Naomi and James relished the experience and their rate of learning went through the roof over the next few months.

Moving into our new home

Before we knew it, the summer was upon us – our client numbers had doubled since the start of the year and we felt like we had the wind in our sails. It was a very exciting time and capped off on July 1st, 2019 when we got the keys to our brand-new office.

A truly great day made even more special as it was shared with my wife and little boy Henry.

I will never forget standing in this space, looking around at the empty walls, knowing how I was about to transform the space.

At the time, I shared this picture on LinkedIn with an update talking about how it had taken me 6 years from starting a business to this day of getting the keys for our brand-new beautiful office. The post went nuts with people congratulating me and wanting to enjoy the moment with us. It reached over 30,000 people on LinkedIn, receiving around 400 likes and over 150 comments.

I’m not one to hang about and so literally within a walk, our new office had gone from the above empty shell to being completely transformed. The below picture is of me exactly 7 days later with my feet up very briefly as it was early in the morning before the team arrived for their first day working in our new office space.

A very proud moment and another post on LinkedIn, which again went crazy. Over 25,000 views and hundreds of interactions. That was one of those moments where you think back and just pinch yourself.

“How had I gone from working in my bedroom to having a “proper” office that was truly breath-taking, with all the quirky features such as the “evergreen wall” and our topiary SEO sign?”

We were still full steam ahead on the recruitment front and had not long added Ben – our Technical SEO Executive – to the team. Ben had left his previous agency to join us and brought some fantastic “techy” experience with him. A real fantastic addition to the team and a sign of how our agency was growing.

With barely a moment to catch a breath, August 1st saw everyone gather for our office launch. We didn’t hold back, and went to Oxford’s Cheese Company in the covered market and bought an amazing cheese selection.

I then invited our clients, partners, suppliers, contacts, and network for a fun evening.

We had a fantastic turnout with over 80 people attending throughout the evening. It was a great way to toast the year to that point, our new team members and the office.

I took this photo while up on the balcony in our new office and have to say, had a little moment where I just stood and thought “wow” as it was overwhelming to have so many people turn up and support us.

Building on the momentum

Now we were in our new home there was no stopping us. I personally had a renewed focus and hunger to push on. We were already so busy attracting new clients every month, which was incredible and meant we were continuing to interview every single month.

With our SEO team now consisting of 5 full team, we needed a content writer, someone to help bring all the ideas to life in the form of fantastic content for the clients, their websites and blogs.

Now surprisingly, recruiting for a great copywriter was very difficult – but not for the reason you might think. We got loads of applications for the role, unlike SEO where applicants were few and far between but with 60+ applications it creates a lot of work in reviewing and sifting through CVs.

I must have conducted about 10 face-to-face interviews for a copywriter and just hadn’t found anyone I “clicked” with, which, for such a small agency environment is so key.

Then one day in early August, Josie walked through our agency door. Her opening line was a joke to James as he offered to make her a cup of tea – she was so nervous bless her, but we sat in our agency chill-out area near the beer fridge and table football upstairs. I think she could sense we were not your typical company and as such, the traditional agency questions went out the window.

We spent almost 2 hours chatting – I completely missed my next appointment – it was like chatting to an old friend and I knew she would fit in so well with the team.

I should say for anyone reading this who is the early stage in their career; it’s the small things that matter when you apply for a job. Josie wrote a fantastic cover letter with her CV when applying for the role, which really let her personality shine through.

A great first impression, that she built on when sat in front of me just being herself.

Josie was the very definition of “evergreen” and I couldn’t’ wait for her to join us, but…

She would have to relocate to join us and so I wanted to ensure she was ready for such a massive change in her life.

She was, and to my amazement set about relocating her entire life to Oxfordshire. She started in September 2019. Below is a picture of Josie’s first day with us.

As we moved into the autumn, George and I really focused on refining our agency processes and systems. Our agency had become a very different animal to 12 months previous. We were attracting bigger SME’s and Corporate customers, which meant we needed yet more resource in order to keep up with the demand.

I’ve always known that an agency is only as good as the results we’re getting for our clients. We’re in a results-driven business after all and so at the core of what we do is making sure our clients see the ROI they demand – and rightly so.

This focus on delivering results goes back way before the team or the office to a time when it was just me working from my bedroom in our little two-bedroom flat.

When I first started The Evergreen Agency, it was tempting to offer a “full digital service”, by this I mean SEO and PPC but also web design (I could do this as my background was in web design), social media advertising, email marketing, etc. This is the common approach most agencies take as it allows you to offer more services or as I think of it be a “jack-of-all-trades”.

For me, that didn’t feel right… I knew I loved SEO and so decided before even launching my agency that it would be a “master-of-one” agency, not a “jack-of-all-trades” agency. Some 7 years later and that has turned out to be the best decision I ever made.

Over the years The Evergreen Agency has built a reputation as providing a Search Marketing service that gets results.

“We must be good at what we do, otherwise we wouldn’t be in business, as we have no other service such as web design or social media to rely on.”

As the team has grown over the past couple years I’ve seen how being a single-discipline agency is such a strength and USP and I’m so glad I stuck to my belief in those early stages when no one knew us and it was tempting to take the easy route and diversify the offering to attract more business in through the door.

Now, businesses come to us for our expertise, track record, experience, and in-house resource. We have the biggest dedicated SEO team in Oxfordshire. Our team of SEO experts can now get results that far surpasses those our competitors can muster – and we do this consistently.

A good example of the results we’re getting for our clients was in a post I published on LinkedIn in November 2019 after receiving an email update from my Head of SEO George.

The team have all provided their monthly reports to George our Head of SEO, who in turn has given me a synopsis for each client.

It’s so damn impressive, I wanted to share some insights:

NB: I have removed the client names for confidentiality, but apart from that, this is some of what I just received.

November client headlines:

  • 211% increase in clicks last 90 days vs last year
  • 83% increase in visibility to over 3.2 million impressions
  • 27.5% increase in clicks in last quarter to over 150,000
  • 546% increase in clicks y-o-y
  • November clicks in 2018 vs 2019 = 5,110 vs 31,600
  • 23,000 more clicks, y-o-y comparison
  • 44.49% increase in unique pageviews
  • 155% increase in clicks to a key business page since we improved it

New clients (under 3 months in):

  • 147% increase in clicks to the website
  • 57% increase in clicks to the website
  • 17% uplift in website enquiries
  • 29% increase in clicks to the website already
  • 56% increase in phone calls to client
  • 0 to 19 completed contact forms (m-o-m)

Conversions data:

  • Conversion rate increased by 4.5% to 13.7% in the last 90
  • Conversion rate improved by 80% y-o-y
  • 56.8% increase in quarterly revenue to £456,180.30
  • 4.73% increase in eCommerce conversion rate

Link to the original post: https://www.linkedin.com/posts/aaronrudmanhawkins_seo-seo-activity-6607625497268498432-jiCc

So, back to our roller coaster year and as September rolled around Josie was settling in well. Naomi, James, Ben and George were all working hard, but we still needed more resource.

One more piece of the SEO puzzle needed

As the weather closed in for the winter, Charlie joined us from another local digital agency in October 2019, he had some experience, but he quickly discovered what he thought he knew wasn’t quite up to our “evergreen standards” and so was going to have to really chuck himself in the deep end and get up to speed with the rest of the team ASAP.

Fortunately, Charlie’s approach was first class and he took the challenge on with both hands and started working closely with our Head of SEO George and the rest of our team.

After a month with us, I had a catch up with Charlie at our office to check in and see how he was doing – his words “I’m loving it, though I’m had to completely re-learn SEO”.

The “evergreen way” has become a tangible thing. We do have a set way of working, a philosophy and approach to SEO, which is what makes us very good at what we do.

It’s not some great secret or mystery, it’s just our no-nonsense, data-driven and common-sense mentality to marketing. For us, every recommendation we make to our clients must be logical and make common sense.

We treat every client’s business as if it were our own and so every task, every project, every recommendation and every hour spent is utilised in such a way as to have maximum impact on that business – as if it were your own business. You wouldn’t waste a minute, if you were marketing your own business so why would you when it comes to our clients.

We define ourselves as a partner to our clients. We get to know our clients, their teams, their businesses and their goals. We need to understand what makes you tick and what you want from your search marketing so we can provide the best possible service for you.

Finishing the year strong

We now had our team for 2019, I decided that was enough interviewing for one year and so we settled in and focused on getting everyone up to speed and ensuring we delivered some incredible results for our clients in the run up to Christmas.

We were featured in the local press to highlight how we were the fast-growing SEO agency in Oxfordshire.

Over the next couple of months, we had some great team socials, ranging from the ice hockey (we sponsor the Oxford City Ice Hockey Stars – you’ll see our logo on their shirts if you go and watch the team) and long lunches over pizza.

It wasn’t all socials and fun, though, as there was a lot of work going on in late 2019 – more than ever in fact.

The culture we had created at The Evergreen Agency was amazing, everyone was really loving their jobs and coming to work. The team were consistently putting in long hours at their own decision as they wanted to ensure they delivered the best results for their clients – I never ask them to work longer than they should.

November 2019 saw another influx of new clients join us, which meant we had to put a pause on new businesses joining us until the new year. A rather odd situation to have to do, but important none the less as we will always ensure our current clients are our top priority and so I’m never one to take on more than we can handle.

When new clients join us, those first couple months are very labour intensive as we get their “ducks in a row” so we can only take on a certain number of new businesses at any one time.

“We should run some SEO Workshops!”

I’d be wanting to share our expertise and knowledge with businesses in a “workshop” type set up for a long time but never had the opportunity when working at home.

Now with our shiny new office, we had the perfect environment and set up for these, so I put out a video update on LinkedIn to see if there was any interest and we were inundated with people wanting to come along.

 

Initially, we put out one date in November. This quickly turned into three dates and we ended up with four dates. They were a roaring success with some great feedback and we’ve now turned these into “SEO Breakfasts”, which we’re rolling out for 2020 – keep an eye out for these.

Awards season

As we entered December and the final push for 2019, the team and I sat down to review all the work to be done. There was a lot to do and I knew everyone was going to have to really put the work in.

I incentivised the team with a cheese and mulled wine evening at my house early December and then our Christmas do a week before the big day, which was great fun. It was my way of saying thank you for not just December but the year in general.

What really rounded the year off perfectly was the recognition we received. Firstly, I was awarded for hitting all of our business goals in 2019 and demonstrating we were one of the 5 (from 50) top- performing businesses from the past year.

Not a week had passed, and it was another Christmas do with a networking organisation I am a part of (Open Doorz) in Oxfordshire. As part of the celebrations, there are awards giving to “Members Member of the Year” for each networking group.

This is topped by the overall Open Doorz Member of the Year, which to my amazement I won for “Outstanding Overall Contribution”. Considering there are over 85 fantastic businesses involved in Open Doorz, that was a real honour and I received the title of “Open Doorz King” and obligatory Crown, which I wore the entire evening with pride (and a little embarrassment I have to say).

The next day when I arrived at the office wearing my crown, the team all thought it was hilarious and with our display cabinet running out of space for more certificates/awards, I decided that was enough of me receiving the awards, it was time for my team to be recognised as they do all the hard work.

I asked Harriet, my wife, fellow director in Evergreen and amazing creative designer to put together some certificates for the team to recognise their efforts.

We decided to have a little fun with them and show their personality in the awards.

  • James: Outstanding Contribution to Coop Bicester’s Yearly Dr Pepper sales & SEO whizz-kid
  • Josie: The “I must do everything now” & agency game-changer Award
  • Naomi: The “Human Sponge” Award – Unparalleled hunger for knowledge
  • Charlie: Outstanding Contribution to Fleece Menswear & agency dark horse
  • Ben: The coffee connoisseur and “lightbulb” moment Award
  • George: The “Up skittling his life” while remaining an SEO Jedi Award

They were all chuffed to bits with their Awards and shortly after this picture was taken, it was Secret Santa and then off for our Christmas night out.

2019 was all but finished…

So, there you have it, that was our year. I’m sat writing this on Christmas Eve as the perfect end to a fantastic year. The team are all in the office right now tapping away on their keyboards working hard around me.

I have told them I’m locking the doors for our Christmas break at 12 midday, so they don’t have long to finish up their work and then we’re off until early January for a well-earned break.

I have really enjoyed writing this look-back at the past year. Trawling through my LinkedIn posts and looking through my phone at the countless images of the team smiling, laughing and all the fun we’ve had it can’t help but make you smile.

Somehow, we’ve managed to go from two people to nine (7 full time and 2 part-time). We have created the most fantastic agency environment and culture. Secured many new clients and doubled the turnover of our business.

As we look forward to 2020, we have big plans and I created a short video to share some of what we’re planning in the 12 months ahead. Please look at my LinkedIn post here:

https://www.linkedin.com/posts/aaronrudmanhawkins_seo-ecommerce-oxfordshire-activity-6613387590072582144-H6Kw/

All that remains to say is a massive thank you to my team, our clients, our partners, suppliers and everyone else who is helping The Evergreen Agency become the fantastic business that it is.

Here is to a fantastic 2020 for us all.

PS – If you want to be the first to see our journey continue then connect with me on LinkedIn.