SEO in Focus

Scale up your SEO agency with Hannah Thorpe’s tips

  • August 2, 2019
  • Steven van Vessum

At the beginning it doesn’t seem intuitive to turn down business and so you’ll give almost any opportunity a go. However with experience I’ve come to realise that a potential client has to be the right fit for you as much as you do for them. Prospects with totally unrealistic business goals, worryingly unethical practices or just really poor communication skills - you come to realise are not worth it.

Welcome Hannah! Can you tell us a little about yourself?

I am an SEO specialist at Found (opens in a new tab); which is an award-winning digital marketing agency in London. I’ve got 6 years experience working in SEO and at Found I am currently a Business Director. My role involves looking after a selection of our clients, setting strategy on key accounts and really just working to drive the businesses we work with forwards.

Previously, I was Managing Director of which was a small digital marketing agency, with a team of 8 people. My key focus there was to grow revenue fast and scale up our agency with our relocation into central London. Last year we were lucky enough to be acquired by Found and join a much larger team, after our hard work in building the brand before.

The Found team winning an award at the UK Search Awards

What’s your secret to scaling up an SEO agency?

I’m not sure there is one secret as such. I guess my biggest tip would be to not be afraid of mistakes, it would be great to have the most accurate data to report on at all times and the best information but so frequently you’re left with imperfect numbers. I think sometimes you just have to follow your gut and know that any issues are always fixable.

Beyond that, it is about understanding your clients requirements, doing best in class SEO work and having good communication throughout. An important part of growth has been about hiring and retaining the right staff who share the overall vision with you and want to do what’s best for a client.

If you’re all working towards the same goal then everything just becomes so much easier!!

Where do you find inspiration about scaling up an SEO agency?

When I first started in SEO I worked for Nichola Stott (opens in a new tab), at Erudite, and I found her ambition and constant drive really inspirational. I joined when it was just a small team and saw it grow very quickly.

Moving forwards in my career to working at and Found, I’ve been lucky enough to work with some very impressive leaders who’ve always been willing to talk through how they’ve made some tough decisions and what’s next for the agency.

I think that’s probably one of my biggest pieces of advice; find the right people to work with and befriend in the industry and you’ll find inspiration in everyday conversations with them.

How do you find and hire the right people?

Finding and hiring is one of the hardest things we have to do; the right staff don’t just need to have the best skills to deliver the work, they also need to fit with our core values and have a passion for everything we’re working to build.

Here’s how we approach hiring:

  • Textio - This is great for writing job descriptions.
  • Recruitment Agencies - If you’re going to work with a recruitment agency then really work with them. The fees that you’ll pay for candidates these days are so high, so you need to make sure if you do hire through them that you get the best. When we were working as, we were very close with our recruitment agency Creative Personnel (opens in a new tab) and even invited them to team activities to ensure they 100% understood our culture and the type of person who’d be the right fit.
  • Conferences - Again, these are a great way to meet people, both potential clients and potential staff. It’s a great way to build out your network to help your job ads get a better organic reach.
Hannah Thorpe on stage speaking at the Marketing Week conference

Tell us more about finding (and retaining) the right clients…

At the beginning it doesn’t seem intuitive to turn down business and so you’ll give almost any opportunity a go. However with experience I’ve come to realise that a potential client has to be the right fit for you as much as you do for them. Prospects with totally unrealistic business goals, worryingly unethical practices or just really poor communication skills - you come to realise are not worth it.

This works in reverse too, the best clients are those that you have a connection with - the ones you genuinely believe have a strong offering and provide good value, and most importantly that you know you can help achieve their goals. Listening to them and being open and flexible with the ways in which you work together nurtures the relationship so that you grow together.

For finding them, that’s easier said than done! I’d recommend conferences and getting out there at networking events to meet people and you’ll soon discover that you’re meeting prospects on a genuine level, rather than meeting them in a sales environment.

What marketing strategies have you found to be effective?

I’m a big endorser of speaking engagements. They are a fantastic way of directly connecting with individuals and nearly always result in conversations that over time turn into business either directly or through referrals. Plus you get to go to some cool places and meet other like-minded people from the industry.

I’m next speaking at Digital Growth Unleashed, 3XE and Ungagged LA so definitely come and say hi if you’re there.

What kind of tooling do you invest in?

Ideally, any tool that automates time consuming tasks!

We’re lucky enough to have a very talented data team at Found who will build tools to automate anything that is repetitive; from redirect mapping to PPC scripts. Beyond our internal tools, we like anything that integrates into Slack and alerts us of changes so that it’s pushing information out, as well as us pulling the data when we need it.

Every SEO agency needs a high quality crawling software, rank tracking, monitoring tools and some strong reporting.

How do you approach standardizing processes?

Standardised processes make everything so much easier in the long-run. When you’re busy trying to grow, it can be so hard to dedicate the time to do this.

I think it’s really about building a process as an MVP and then letting it grow and iterate until you have the perfect system. It’s also key that these processes come from the people doing the work, rather than management as they’ll know the pain points and potential flaws early on.

Can agencies scale up just fine in 2019 without taking in outside money?

Any agency can scale up in 2019 as long as they can attract new clients, manage their time efficiently and hire/train competent staff.

When it comes to on-boarding new clients, especially for a smaller-sized agency, building your agency’s reputation is imperative. Whether it’s having a well-maintained website featuring in-depth case studies and testimonials, having a strong social presence, or appearing/speaking at well-known conferences and networking events, there are multiple online and offline activities which will attract new clients.

Another important aspect of scaling up is managing your time efficiently. Resource management, project management and time management tools are all widely available, from pricey paid subscriptions to affordable one-off payments. Ensuring the team isn’t overburning on clients’ deliverable work makes sure more time is freed up for sales, recruitment and training. The latter of these two are vital for scaling up an SEO agency.

Hiring staff who will fit the company culture, have an appetite to learn and are happy to take on client comms responsibilities will ensure the business is on a consistent upwards curve. Being efficient with the day-to-day billable work will also ensure these staff are trained the required amount to improve the agency’s scalability.

What are the dangers of scaling up an SEO agency?

If your end goal is to sell your agency, then it’s so important you find the right home for your team and clients. Our acquisition into Found was close to seamless as our cultures aligned so closely. Despite its size, Found is transparent with its values and way of working; work hard, play hard. These values resonated with the team and its these shared values which helped the merge become an organic process.

You often hear there are high turnovers at other agencies, and even a high number of new staff leaving before their probation is complete, this is not the case at Found. A big danger of scaling up is recruiting the wrong staff when an agency tries to grow too quickly. We can’t stress enough the importance of recruitment with cultural fit in mind, not just technical abilities.

Should scaling up an SEO agency be a goal for every agency?

For most agency owners/founders in 2019, it would be very unusual to not have the ambition to scale their business. After all, however much we love working in SEO, we still want to make as good a living as possible. Very rarely do you hear of agencies having one area or industry they specialise in. Particularly for smaller agencies looking to grow, it’s a case of bringing in as many clients as possible, then the next step is to look for similar clients who know you have experience in their niche. So in a sense, an agency could specialise in a variety of niches - not just restricting yourselves to one.

However, with this said, for those agencies specialising in very niche industries, it may well be a case of already having a significant market share. You may have three clients but all three of these could be big players in the market, therefore if the agency is not looking to expand into other industries, it’s unlikely there will be a focus on scaling up. More a case of maintaining the lion’s share of the market.

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Steven is ContentKing's VP of Community. This means he's involved in everything community and content marketing related. Right where he wants to be. He gets a huge kick out of letting websites rank and loves to talk SEO, content marketing and growth.