Episode 7 – Harry Sanders – Director Studiohawk

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Audio Transcript:

VO Guy:

Hello. And thanks for coming along to, and we have an office dog, the Digital Agency Podcast, where we talk to agency owner directors and learn more about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar to the things they’d rather have known sooner. Where they’ve success and where they’ve learned some hard lessons. All will be revealed with your host, Chris Simmance, the Agency coach. And he’ll be talking to a different awesome Agency person in each episode, asking them four questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. Okay. So, let us begin. Over to you, Chris.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Thanks, voiceover guy. Hi, Harry.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Hey, how’s it going?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Not too bad, thank you. This afternoon we’ve got Harry from StudioHawk with us on the podcast. Harry, tell us all about StudioHawk first of all. Give us a plug just in case, you never know, could be a client listening.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Oh, huge. I’ll give you the TLDR. So, started StudioHawk in Australia as a dedicated SEO company. So no paid, no social, just SEO. Changed the model up a little bit. Got rid of the sales people. Got rid of the account managers, and just made it all SEO people. So today you’ve got about 45 SEO specialists in Australia working with most of the leading brands here, and certainly the largest in Australia, and then six over in London. Still doing what we’re doing. Just the good word of SEO, man.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Brilliant. So pure SEO, nothing else?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Pure SEO. That’s it. Content, digital PR, but SEO.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And you’ve very recently won a couple of awards, haven’t you? Go on.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah, yeah. I’ll give it a spruce.

Chris Simmance (Host):

You’re allowed to.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

We were named the Global Search Awards Agency of the Year, Best Largest SEO Agency, and the APAC Best Largest SEO Agency, which makes you wonder. If you win the global, do you automatically win the APAC, or how does that work?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Feels like it should be, but let’s not get into how these awards work. I was a judge a few years ago and all I can say is there’s a lot of entries and if you do win the global ones, then you’re definitely doing something well.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Ah, thanks, Chris.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So, well done on that. So as ever, we’ve got four questions and over the next 25 minutes or so we’ll see where the conversation takes us. And in the first place, so what is it that’s been one of your biggest successes over the last few years of running StudioHawk. What do you think’s really been the biggie?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

I think one of our biggest successes I mentioned in our spiel, that dogged specialization. I think it’s made it very easy for us to come into conversations and say, “Okay. I know you’re talking to seven other agencies right now, but how many of them just do SEO?”

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

And in the early days it was such good cut through because brands come to us and be like, “Oh, we need SEO.” And I would always use the analogy, “Well, if you had an electrical problem would you hire a handyman or electrician?” And that was how I framed it. That one sentence probably earned me hundreds of thousands of quid worth of work.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

So yeah, that was, I think a massive thing we did in the early days. That and investing in people, which is a whole other conversation itself.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So, as you put it, the dogged nicheing down only to doing SEO. I think you’re right there in many senses. There’s quite a lot of agencies which offer a lot of services and they do them very well. There’s quite a lot of agencies that just do SEO or just do PPC or just do social, and they do them very well. And depending on who, from a price point perspective or from a target audience perspective, really does depend. Doesn’t it? I think, oh God, that word, it depends.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Try again.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Just sorry everyone who’s listening, I promise we won’t say it again in this podcast. Hopefully. So focusing on something that is what you know best means that, I guess you pick the right people to work for you, and things like that, do you think?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Right, yeah. It makes it more scalable. I mean, our SEO people hate talking about the business sense of things, but often times, I mean, running agencies, that’s what we do. And so we talk about things like scale. It’s really hard to scale a full service company, because you need sales people. You need good account reps. Now you need good AdWords people. Now you need good social people. And now you need good SEO people. And so on and so forth, so it makes it a lot harder. Whereas the Studio, I’m like ah, I need to grow. Great. I just hire an SEO person.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. And you get the people you want because you know exactly your model, because you’re selling the same thing every time.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Right. Exactly. And we sell them on that dream. We sell them on the dream of, “Hey, remember at that old company you used to work out and the sales guys would ever promise?” “Yeah, that sucks.” “We don’t have sales guys. Remember those account managers you’d work with and they didn’t properly convey what you were doing to the client?” “Yeah. That sucks.” “Well guess what? You get to be everything now.”

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Yeah. So is it a case of client gets onboarded to an SEO who is also their account manager then? Is that how it works?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah, correct. Because I mean, there’s no sense having an account manager if the account manager is a trained SEO specialist. It would make sense to have an account manager if we were managing their paid and their social and their SEO, because you can’t really have one person across all that.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Of course.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

But if someone’s just doing SEO, it works wonders.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. No. When I was running my agency, it was a very similar thing. Once you’re onboarded the person that looked after you was the person that did the work. And I think that builds a layer of accountability in there because you can’t really hide behind someone else’s email.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. Tremendous amount of accountability.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So if you were to go back, I guess, when was it you founded StudioHawk?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

I’d say six years ago. Six years ago, I think I did.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Okay. So, I mean, I hope you don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re already still very young. If you went back six years ago to when you were in kindergarten and talked to a younger, slightly younger actually, version of yourself just about to start StudioHawk, what would you tell yourself?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Oh, when I just started StudioHawk, already very young, I was 17 when I started the company, but I’d been working in digital agencies since I was 14, which is a whole story in itself.

Chris Simmance (Host):

25 minutes, so don’t worry. We’ll skip that one for the next episode.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

That’s it. And so I had that agency experience and that agency background. So I came off into starting my own company, like a lot of people do when they leave an agency role or an in-house role. I think I had over inflated self worth, which some people have gone either spectrum of that. I definitely thought I was worth way more. So I left that agency and they were billing me out at a hundred quid an hour. And so I left that agency and I said well, actually I’m worth a hundred quid an hour by myself and they’re lucky I’m not charging them 120 quid an hour.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

And you can imagine how that went as a 17 year old trying to go up to random, small companies, be like, pay me a hundred quid an hour for my SEO. And so, I think I’d say to my younger self, you’re an SEO guy. You’re good at it, but you’ve got to realize that you’ve got to keep that ego in check. There’s a lot of ego in the SEO world. You’ve got to keep that ego in check and you’ve got to realize that you’re just starting off. It’s going to be a long slog ahead of you. And I think that would’ve calmed my anxiety as I started out.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So it’s going to be hard, is the message.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

You’re not as good as you think you are right now, but you probably will be eventually.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Exactly. Exactly.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It’s that nought to a hundred miles an hour thing, isn’t it? As a young agency owner you initially start thinking I can be that big agency that I aspire to that I’ve seen online, and things like that, or the one I used to work at. And I think you’re right, it does take time. And you can’t get to a hundred miles an hour without going through all of the other increments the whole way through.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Exactly. Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Some of that’s a bit slower than the others.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. There’s so many things, so many lessons I’ve learned along the way. I always wondered why there were so many shit agencies, and everyone does. I think everyone sits down at one point and they go, why are there so many agencies? But what I learned through doing it, and I did the typical thing, the thing that literally thousands of people have done. It’s like, I’m going to start an agency that’s not shit. And what I learned was not a single person ever in the history of mankind has gone, I’m going to start an agency that’s shit. They just turn out to be shit, right?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

And so they turn out to be shit for a myriad of different reasons, whether they’re too sales heavy and they don’t have the support behind it, or they’re too diverse in what they do. But at the end of the day, you realize you’re only a few bad decisions away from being a shit agency.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Oh, yeah. Absolutely.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

So it’s all part of that journey as you start and discover what you want to be and what makes the agency work and tick. And again, at the start of that journey, realizing that don’t screw with the golden goose. What we do works. The more things we touch and tinker in, the more we let our ego play in. Like I go oh, I founded this thing. I think I know what’s best for the company. Actually my executives do in a lot of cases.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. So I guess, not to start some Twitter war, digital PR is part of SEO. That is my opinion, I’d say.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So just in case anyone wants to hate on me, you can, I’m quite resilient. That’s fine. Some people will say it’s an entirely different discipline and it’s not connected at all. As you added that into your suite of offerings from just the pure on page and technical SOE, bit of content and things like that, how did that affect the business, other than obviously positive on the bank balance? Was that something which… It takes a whole different suite of operational needs, isn’t it? How did that go?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. Well, to be honest, it’s actually a good time to be answering because we’re still very much in the early stages of rolling it out. In Australia, DPR or digital PR is really not a thing here. There’s virtually nobody doing it. There’s virtually nobody you can hire. And even when you’re doing news hijacking or when you’re reaching out to these publications, there’s a lot fewer publications.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Okay.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

So, I think it’s a very fun thing and very interesting part. I’m the same as you, Chris, it’s a part of link building. It’s a part of what we do to secure links and placements for clients. It just happens to be a fun and creative way of doing it, like technical SEO can be very fun and content can be very fun and creative. This finally gives link building that fun and creativity that it deserves.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I think, so digital PR, and again, hate me if you want, ex SEO addict so I can get away with it. Digital PR is an awful… It reminds me a lot like a post penguin world in 2011/2012 when people stopped writing shity articles and started writing things that had depth and value, and then came along with the infographics. And infographics, I think probably those ways of generating links were a precursor to digital PR because someone went, “Hey, why don’t we make this infographic have some content, have some value, have some interactivity and some sort of meaning behind it?” And look, oh wow. Other people are picking it up without us having to outreach it. Loads of people that we outreach to are doing really well.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And I remember, I think it was 2012, creating my first ever infographic and being ridiculously proud of it. I looked back at it a couple of months ago and realized how terrible it was now, but it looked absolutely fantastic. And loads of people picked it up. And I’ve still got a few links from it, and things like that. It was an exciting time to be doing that. And I think, from what you’re saying, is that very few people in Australia are doing it right now, which is giving you a good opportunity to get excellent [crosstalk 00:12:52] for your U.K. clients.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. Absolutely. We have the U.K. branch, so we’re taking a lot of learnings from the U.K. into implementing DPR into Australia. But yeah, I totally agree with you. It’s like the evolution of infographics. It’s just the people that were hounding infographics realized damn, we’re not going to get as much traction as infographic anymore. And then some smart cookies turned it into some interactive widget and then got a ton of links. And now everyone’s doing interactive widgets.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well, it’s people like Ross at Type A and Carrie and Steven at Rise have really worked out that formula really, really well. Not just in terms of the timeliness of some of these things, but also just the fact that they actually resonate with something that people want. And if people want it, then it’s not that hard to outreach it. You’re saying, “Hey, do you want something that you didn’t know you wanted?”

Chris Simmance (Host):

But how’s that impacted the operations or the process part of things? Because if you have the SEO guy who’s the account manager is he or she also supporting or working on the digital PR as well as the SEO tasks?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah, really good question. Look, StudioHawk is the amalgamation of too many video games, is what I often joke about for my GM. It’s like one big MMORPG. So we’ve got talent trees. So you’ve got a progression pathway in StudioHawk from junior to senior. And then once you make specialist you actually have a talent tree. You pick where you want to go into.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Okay.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

We’ve got four major teams. You’ve got your technical team, your content team, your offsite team and your training team.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Okay.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Training team, largely training juniors to become SEO specialists. But the other team’s very self explanatory. Now digital PR sits in the offsite team which means that we’ve got people whose whole specialization is coming up with creative briefs and ways of doing digital PR.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Okay.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

And then they’re the people that outreach. And we have one person that sits removed a little bit from the SEO, that carries out that overarching digital PR and then briefs it into the account manager doing the SEO.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Okay. So MMORPG version of that. Yeah. So, in reality, the coins they would’ve gotten in the game is just their wages, right?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. They just get wages.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Brilliant, excellent.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

XP, more wages.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s it. That’s fantastic. I like that. And I guess, that works quite well in this industry because everyone understands that, but from a progression point of view in a business. It’s really easy to lose staff in digital marketing, isn’t it? There’s a lot of different places people can go and there’s a lot of different side industries and careers and in-house that people can do.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I suppose, if you are doing something like a training plan, you come in on day one and not only does your salary link to your skills and your XP, but also there is a plan and you can follow a plan. It stops you from getting stagnant.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And I suspect, I guess in a way, if I put myself in a junior’s position and I know where I’m going, then I would stay with StudioHawk because I’m following a path, rather than if I leave StudioHawk, I go somewhere else, which I don’t know has all of those things and I don’t know can do those things and I don’t think will fit me. So it’s a good part of a culture to have.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. It’s all part of retention. Everyone complains often about how hard SEO people are to keep, and digital marketing people in general, but they don’t do a lot to show them where they can progress. So giving them a pathway, having levels within each system, so you’ve got level one to level three junior, level one to level three mid, and then you’ve got your senior levels, it gives them a pathway for three years.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

And if we can get someone for three years, that’s great. If we can get that for longer, even better. But that’s what that model is, and that target is, is how do we engage these people for a solid time span so that we’ve always got good talent in the organization.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Brilliant. Brilliant. And I’m guessing it works well for you, since it’s so cemented in.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. I mean, it works really well. Retention’s great. We have all sorts of great staff and we’ve got a great kind of backlog of people that can come in into positions. So, by the time you get to that typical agency crunch and you’re like oh, damn. We’ve got to hire someone and we can’t hire anyone external because there’s no one good in the market right now, it’s okay because you’ve got two juniors that have been there for a year now that are about to make mid in the next month. And so they’re really hungry, fired up and really well trained.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. That’s awesome. That’s awesome. So two generally good successes there. So other than the successes, if I could ask, is there anything that you regret or that you wish you’d done sooner? Perhaps something that you regret as a mistake, but has actually set you up for success potentially.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. I mean, there’s so many examples that I can think of.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So many screw ups.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

So many screw ups. Right. Everyone’s got so many screw ups.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

One of the big ones, one of the big times screw ups, is having people in the wrong seats, like having the wrong people in the wrong seats of the business. We’ve historically had some people that probably weren’t good culturally for the business. Maybe they didn’t have that kind of integrity or the values that we had, but we kept them around because they were with the company for a long time or they were bringing in revenue, and that’s a big mistake.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

You need to move those people along or they’ll move along and it will become a bigger problem when they move along than if you just move them along. And so, yeah, we’ve definitely made mistakes, certainly in the early days, of having people that may have been around since the company started, that were certainly not in a good position at the end. I had a really key person in a position that was more of a sales manager than the position they were in. And we almost had members of the executive team fully quit. They came to me afterwards in confidence saying that they would’ve quit had that person not been moved on, or they did move on. But can you imagine if they didn’t move on and they sat there and we lost these really great executives because I was too naive to see the damage they were doing.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. No, spot on, I think. And it could have gone the other way, by the sounds of it. I think, culture in agency is actually really vital, as much as it sounds really fluffy and a bit shit. Culture sounds like someone’s read it from a book and you’ve just got to follow these steps and get there. It has to start with a leader and it has to be followed all the way through by everyone. And you’re right. If you have someone in the business who’s a bit toxic, and they’re not toxic because they’re horrible people necessarily, you can be toxic and a nice person because you don’t fit the culture. And that might mean you move horizontally through the business into something that fits you a bit better, or you and the business recognize that it isn’t the right place for you. But having lots of people who are in the culture and believe in the same values and the same purpose is great, but if there’s one or two that don’t, it’s really obvious.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah, exactly.

Chris Simmance (Host):

You could have a hundred people pulling in one direction to try and do something and then you’ve got other people leaning against the weight that you’re trying to pull. They’re still there, but they’re not making it easier.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah, exactly right, Chris. You’ve got people that are not going in the direction that the ship’s heading. Worse, they’re poking holes in it. It’s really tricky.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Whilst you’re trying to add people into the boat and bail it out of the water as well. Yeah. Good analogy. I think that’s part of being good at marketing and sales is to whip out a good analogy once in a while.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Oh, man. I love a good analogy, but a lot of them do not land. A lot of them do not land.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Mate, if you’re talking to us Brits, it could be cultural. We don’t understand half of what you guys say over there.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Oh, man. I remember getting to London and opening an office there. In Australia, we use this term called… It’s a funny thing to mention on the podcast. If you do something to a friend, like let’s say you’re going out to a friend on Friday night, but you go somewhere else instead. You say, “Oh, you’re dogging your friend.”

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, who?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

So I went to London and I used that one and it meant something else, man. They didn’t like that one over there.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I’m not going to go into that on this podcast as to what they thought it meant, but I can understand why people didn’t like that.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yes.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So let’s move along. So let’s say for argument’s sake, there is someone listening to this podcast who’s thinking about starting an agency in the future or maybe even one of your specialists is thinking about setting up a small agency for themselves. Other than please don’t leave me, please don’t leave me, what advice would you give that person?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Look, be prepared for a long horizon. Like I said earlier, success takes a long time. It’s not nearly as glorious as you think it will be. You’ll think that one day you’re doing podcasts and speaking sessions and all these great things, and Chris you’ve been on the circuit, you’ve done all these amazing things. You get there and you realize man, that wasn’t everything I thought it would be.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Yeah. I recognize that. Yeah.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

And so you’ve got to dig a little bit deep and really think about why you’re starting an agency. If you’re starting an agency to just make some money or make a quick buck, honestly, there are so many easier ways to do it than starting an agency. I would run as far away from that land as possible. But if you’re doing it because you legitimately identify a need or a niche or a way, or something that you feel is lacking in the market, then yeah, it comes back to the advice. Just be prepared to do it for many, many years before it saw traction. StudioHawk, six years old, we exploded in the past three. But people forget about those first three years of basically doing everything, working the hardest I’ve ever worked and getting nowhere.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff that… It’s easy to forget those things yourself, isn’t it? I remember going from sales pitch, to sales pitch, to meeting, to meeting, to trying to stop a client leaving. Just hiring people all in the space of a week. Then a flight to do a talk, which seemed really glamorous, but you were knackered, and still saying the same things that someone else had probably said before. And you’re like, oh God. Why am I doing this again?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

What have I done. And then you look at the bank balance and you’re like, wait. I was getting paid 30,000, quid at the agency and I’m doing all this and I’m getting 22,000 quid. What the hell?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Never do that maths, agency people. There’ll be half the agencies will stop overnight and that’s my market over and done with. But, I think there’s a place for making money in agencies, obviously.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Of course.

Chris Simmance (Host):

But it has to align with your overall personal purpose. Why do I get out of bed in the morning? If it is genuinely to just make loads of money then you’re right. If it’s to make loads of money this might not be the right thing for you. If it’s to generate lots and lots of good things in the world, in a niche that also happens to make some money, brilliant. You’re in the right place.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. Exactly right. So I think people will be happy if they find something they’re really passionate about. But I think successful agencies are run by passionate people and that’s what makes them work, because it is a passion project at the end of the day. I mean, StudioHawk’s now very successful, but even now we’re making a 15% profit margin compared to some agencies at 30, 40%. And it really is a labor of love.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Yeah, you’re right. And one thing to close up on, I guess, is if you are looking at an agency and you are looking to run an agency, revenue is not the be all and end all. It’s what’s in the bank after you’ve paid the bills, after you’ve paid the staff, after you’ve paid your taxes. That profit margin is the thing to look for. So, if you are looking to start an agency or you’re running one now and you’re thinking yeah, but I made a million quid last year. If you made a million quid last year but you’ve only got 22 K in your own pocket, then that’s when you need to start thinking is there a better way of doing this?

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Or if you really only want 22 K and you’re quite happy chasing the numbers then, I mean, I don’t want what you’re drinking.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Yeah. A hundred percent.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So thanks very much for coming on the show, Harry. It’s been really good to listen to all of the things about StudioHawk. And I definitely don’t want to talk about the dogging experience again.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

I’ll do my best. I’ll bring it up when I get over there next.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Brilliant. Thank you.

Harry Sanders (Guest):

Thanks, Chris.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So, later on in the podcast we’ll be having another fantastic agency owner director come and join us, but until then, thanks for listening and speak to you all soon. Speak to you later, Harry.

 

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