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From Digital Freelance to Digital Agency Owner

We caught up with Gareth Simpson, Managing Director at Seeker Digital, who has successfully mastered the leap from freelancer to agency owner. To gather and share his wisdom, we asked him about his career journey so far and his motivations behind ‘why to start a business’. Also some practical tools in here for you that could help you along the way should you want to embark on a similar journey.

Here is our chat:

ADLIB: What has been your career journey so far?

Gareth Simpson: I got into the web industry over ten years ago, when the digital landscape was very different. I had an IT infrastructure background, which was perfect for the way that SEO was done back then.

A lot of my SEO skills were self-taught — knowledge gained through testing things on my own sites. I didn’t take any courses or get into mainstream education, but my practical experience landed me my first agency SEO job. Nowadays, junior SEOs have a tonne of great courses and resources to explore — I’d definitely recommend getting stuck in.

After I broke into the agency world, I worked for some pretty cool organisations – my favourite being Bristol-based Strategy Internet Marketing. Each agency I went to, I picked up something different and useful.

I’d always toyed with the idea of going freelance; I even quit my job in my early twenties to be a freelancer. But in the end, I went back to agency life. I felt like I still had some personal development and maturing to do.

In 2016, I finally took the plunge and went into freelance consulting. This freelance journey led me to hiring a team and founding Seeker Digital. In many ways, I had been planning the agency in ‘slow time’ for years — it was always my end goal to hire a team and found an agency.

When I was finally ready to launch myself into it 100%, it all fell into place pretty quickly. I had more work than I could handle on my own, and I missed the social elements of working as a team – so building one felt like a no-brainer, and the rest is history…

ADLIB: Why did you decide to start your own business rather than continuing as a very busy freelancer?

Gareth Simpson: A lot of it came down to scaling – I was getting more and more business, including signing on a multinational client; and I realised I needed a team to help me grow my business.

Also, I was working with a lot of freelance writers, and I found that my margins were quite squeezed. I felt like an in-house team would allow me to get more for my investment, and allow me to pass on what I’d learned.

I do a lot of outreach, and it’s my agency’s specialism. For outreach to work, technical skills must be complemented by creative ones – so that’s where I looked when it came to building my first team.

My friends and fellow SEOs also gave me advice about setting up my own business – it was great to get support from them.

ADLIB: What three pieces of advice would you give those wanting to also turn business owner, starting out as freelancer?

Gareth Simpson: I’ve learned a lot, and benefited from some great advice from my peers and mentors. Here are three things I think freelancers should consider when scaling:

Cash flow is everything

Even with the best financial advice and tools, it will take time to find your financial feet. A good accounting system is important for client management, cash flow, and budgeting. Don’t underestimate the financial responsibility you’re taking on, and know when you need to ask for help.

You should think about diversification early on. We had one big client at first which was risky, so we quickly diversified.

Don’t rush and grow too soon or take on bad work

Running a business is demanding, so take small steps into the world of agency owner to see if it will work for you. It’s a risky thing — take the leap when you are ready. It can be tempting to rush and try to do everything at once, but you will just get overwhelmed.

Try to grow in an organic way and hire people slowly. We grew a little too fast which led to some inefficiencies and cash flow issues. And don’t be tempted to say yes to bad work – stay true to your core skillset.

Work on internal processes

The biggest change from freelancer to business owner is the fact that you are delegating your work out. This is the fastest route to scale, but you need to have solid processes to support efficient delegation.

Outsource as soon as you can; don’t try to do everything. Re-invest your profits back into the business to see it grow.

ADLIB: Practically, during your journey and especially the early stages of founding your business, are there any tools, apps or resources you could share with those wanting to take a similar path?

Gareth Simpson: Being an SEO, I love organic analytics tools like ahrefs, Majestic, and Semrush. At the same time, there is a lot of mileage to be had from G Suite and Excel. Tools aren’t ever a replacement for talent.

For team comms and project management, I would say it’s important to start off simple. Basecamp is really easy to use, and will help you manage projects right from the beginning. As your workflow evolves, so will the complexity of your tools and processes. It’s essential that you figure out what you need your tools to do first.

I am not a big fan of email, and I gravitate towards social comms environment like Slack or Skype. Things get lost in emails — I prefer all-informed and integrated tools.

My advice is to look for smart integrations, and try to consolidate costs down into a few core tools. Be mindful of expenses as costs can quickly creep up – you may need to have a cull.

For me, networking is one of the most important aspect of running a business. Networking is great for referrals — but I also see it as way to be inspired by my peers, get sound advice, and develop myself. Networking with other SEOs and joining Agency Collective — the keys to my success, 100%.

Thank you for sharing!