How SEO Consultant Eli Schwartz Made $159K PRIOR To Freelancing Full-Time
Eli Schwartz, freelance growth manager and author of the Product-led SEO joins Nick in an interview discussing his 6 figure earnings while maintaining a 9-5 job.
Welcome to the Six-Figure Freelancer series within TheSEOFreelancer. Each month I’ll be interviewing a freelancer (not just SEO) and sharing their story on how they earned their first $100,000.
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Introducing Eli Schwartz
Eli Schwartz, author of the Amazon top seller Product-Led SEO joins us today to discuss his first six-figure payday as a freelancer.
Eli has been in the SEO industry since 2006 and started freelancing part-time almost immediately. As you’ll read below, Eli was soon generating well over six figures in freelance income in addition to his full-time “9-5” job/salary.
Thanks again, Eli, for agreeing to participate in this interview. Let’s not waste another minute and jump right in.
Please explain to us what you do for a living? How did you get started? How long have you been in search?
As a growth advisor, I help companies understand and implement strategies to attract more users from search engines.
I got started in this area of consulting as a result of my most recent full time job at SurveyMonkey. This job was unique in that there were already complete teams responsible for engineering, blogging, marketing, and writing out content. So my job was less focused on how do I get more eyeballs to keywords and more how do I grow organic channels into the biggest and highest revenue grossing channel that it could be. (This was also where the idea for my book came from.)
Through figuring out the solution to the above, I realized that it was less traditional “SEO” that many companies need but more effort around strategy, diplomacy, and navigating roadmaps and getting people on my side. When I had this figured out, that's when I started taking that show on the road for other organizations via freelancing.
I’ve been in search for 15+ years now.
Do you have a college degree? And if so, what is it? And do you feel that it provided any benefit to where you are today?
I have an MBA from the University of Baltimore, and to be honest it provides absolutely nothing of value today.
The exception from my total higher education experience is where I learned how to write. I wasn't a very good writer, and I had terrible teachers who marked up my papers a ton, and I became a better writer because of that. I think writing and communicating effectively is very, very important for SEO because that is the difference between making $100 an hour and making $1,000.
With all that in mind, would you steer people away from a college degree if they want to be in growth/digital?
I would say everyone should get a college degree. I think it's what gives you the most exposure to the world and the most breadth of knowledge. Yes, of course, you can learn everything at the library. You could also can get a degrees worth of information off of YouTube but how many people actually have the diligence to do that?
If you aren’t getting the full college experience how else are you going to get a well rounded experience where you learn a little bit of math and a little bit of writing and a little bit of science?
I find that this basic knowledge helps me significantly in my consulting. For instance, take a client in the crypto space. Crypto wasn't around when I went to school, but I know enough about economic theory to try to bring that into the conversation in SEO strategy.
Communicating with clients is a skill that is very important that you don’t always get (directly) from college. For me, this came from my experience as a Director of Growth at SurveyMonkey. I'm now working with companies at a level that might put me at the VP level where you are consistently delegating and communicating expectations. If you can do that effectively then that’s the difference between getting 100% buy-in vs a “hell no” response.
I think the executive presence comes from being confident. One of my biggest pet peeves with the SEO world is how often SEOs like to say “it depends” and “I don't know”. It’s far better to say , there can be a variety of results but based on my expertise and knowledge, I think “this is the most likely result” is. Does that mean you're going to be right? No, doctors are wrong all the time, but they definitely have a strong opinion on what you should do for next steps and their confidence gives you the confidence you need to heed their advice
What was your first full-time job and what was your starting salary?
Funny enough, I didn’t actually go to college right away. I tried to avoid it altogether and jumped directly into finance which I was very interested in at that time.
I'm from Maryland and moved to New York to work in finance and I got a job as a runner in the New York Stock Exchange making $6 an hour. I would bring tickets back and forth between brokers and the places where they executed on the trade. That job doesn’t exist anymore - with technology there's no need for it.
That job led me to a full time clerk position for a hedge fund on the New York Stock Exchange making $24,000.00 and health benefits (that I don’t think I ever signed up for.) I was 18 years old and felt invincible.
Ultimately, I got fired from that job after ~6 months. It destroyed me because it had been a dream of mine that was taken away. That experience and the complete decimation of the finance economy from 9/11 (which is a whole different story) is when I decided I needed to go to college.
At what point in your career did you start freelancing? What made you interested in freelance work?
Immediately 15-16 years ago when I first discovered SEO. I started (unsuccessfully) as soon as I felt like I knew something about SEO because I had read some blogs. I put up a website and said I’m available as a consultant.
Initially my interest in freelancing was about earning extra money beyond my fixed salary. I felt like I knew a secret that other people didn’t know, and therefore people might want to pay for it. I was well aware that other consultants were making a lot of money from this knowledge and it didn’t seem all that hard.
I also realized that I was also highly motivated by work/life balance and by not being tied to a fixed salary and infrequent raises. Freelancing was a solution to both of these.
You made over 150K freelancing part-time in addition to your full-time job. Tell us about it.
I hit this milestone largely from one big client and it was this experience that convinced me I could do this full-time.
Years ago, for my first few clients I was only charging $100 an hour. For example, one of them, I was charging them $100 an hour for 20 hours to earn two grand a month. I didn’t run into issues at first but then they started pushing back and saying, “Well, maybe can you work 10 hours a month?” I thought that was kind of dumb, because I didn't even know what to cut from the 20 hour engagement. I literally had to sit there and watch them get similar value (from me) at a lower cost.
So $100/hr. at the time seemed like a big number to me but I soon realized it wasn’t the right approach.
With some critical thinking I started wondering why I was charging $100/hr. vs a standard 1-2K per month retainer to be the clients “SEO consultant.” At this point I started charging 1-2-3 thousand per client. But these were all smaller clients.
To get to the big client, I started building some decent awareness on LinkedIn and showing up/speaking at conferences. I also had blog posts on Search Engine Journal ,Search Engine Land and other tech media - my visibility was growing.
One day, I get a message on LinkedIn from the Chief Product Officer of a public company. The message seemed to come out the blue, but it was based on all those years of building a personal brand. They had a major problem with their SEO, they were in a space where they had been dominant for many years. Suddenly they were no longer dominant and started disappearing for keywords they practically invented. They needed help.
We talked through the challenges. They felt like I could offer value. They said, How much do you charge? So I said to myself the highest at the time I was billing $2000 or $3,000 (for smaller companies) these guys are public, a multi- billion dollar company on the stock market. I wanted to try charging a much larger rate. I figured this executive is going to come back to me and haggle, So I said $10K/mo. fully expecting him to say “Are you crazy? We'll give you five.” He said “can you send us a contract this afternoon?”
So that was it, one big 100K+ client and a handful of smaller ones. This public company kept me around for over a year. So that was how I started making more than 100 grand a year on the side of my full-time job.
Given you had so much success freelancing part-time what made you jump into freelancing full time?
So I think there's two reasons. Reason number one was, I had been doing SEO for a very long time. And I was at SurveyMonkey for close to seven years (including a stint in Singapore for two years leading APAC marketing) Many people don't stay at companies that long, but my career had been very diverse and had been interesting. I was, however, looking for another job, because I was very comfortable, too comfortable. I was fortunate that the job was very easy, easy enough that I could freelance on the side. And while I was interviewing for other roles (at big companies that I thought I wanted to work at) I realized that I was not going to find what I was looking for.
A lot of these companies weren’t looking for someone with many years of experience, they were looking for people at the manager level. I also realized that it might be hard to meet my full pay package given additional equity I was earning. Because I had moved from the marketing team (in previous roles) to the product team I had also received more (and higher) raises then what most hiring managers were willing to pay for my expertise.
So I'm interviewing at these great companies and not able to find a role that was a good fit. I could (for example) have gone to Amazon and worked harder for less money but I thought it really didn’t make a lot of sense. I would probably have had to give up freelancing and I’d be expected to work considerably harder in this role.
The second thing, so I didn't really want to stay at SurveyMonkey. I also didn't really want to move to another company either. I kept thinking about how this freelancing thing is working well and the business is coming to me. I wasn't really chasing work. I never had to send emails asking “you guys have something for me to do? Hire me!” So the deals were coming in, and I was able to close a lot of these. There was, however, a recurring issue I was needing to figure out. These clients were expecting me to be available during business hours.
A (side) client wanted me to fly to Seattle on short notice, and meet their team. I said I can't, because I have a product review meeting at work. And then I have my one on one with my boss. And then I have a one on one with my team. And then we have a happy hour. So I'm sorry, I can't make it next week. Unless I cancel everything which wasn’t an option.
So I started realizing that my job was getting in the way of the freelancing contracts I wanted to sign. It was constantly hearing. Hey, you have a job? How are you going to be our consultant, we want you to be available and to start jumping on meetings when we tell you to. So I figured something's got to go and at that point I wasn’t as inspired as I could be from the 9-5 job. The full-time job had to go.
I started taking all the extra money I was making and saved up and creating very detailed burn rate budgets and compared it against actual budgets. I decided that I'm going to give this a shot.
I quit my job in April 2019 and I figured I'm going to see if I can make it till the end of 2019. If I can make it and I can live off this income then I'll keep doing this. If not, I'll get a job. And luckily, I didn't have to go get another (full-time) job.
How would you compare the hours worked as a freelancer compared to previous 9-5 roles? Has it changed over the years?
My level of stress is so much lower that I can't even register it on the same scale as my prior roles. I strongly recommend giving freelancing a shot for anyone that thinks they can do it and I would love to hear from anyone who wants support on going out on their own.
How does freelancing play a role in your work/life balance?
So I don't use Calendly, or any other similar meeting services. I view my day as eight hours every single day as eight hours that are defaulted to free. I put meetings in my calendar as needed. So if I have a one hour meeting day, that's great. If I have a five hour meeting day, that's also great. But I only schedule meetings based on my needs at the time.
What I found is that as an employee or if you're a freelancer with an employee mindset, you say: I've got an eight hour day, how am I going to go about my eight hours? If you're an employee it's like I'm working for my boss so I need to do a bunch of busy work to fill this time. It doesn’t matter if you're executing tasks or sitting in meetings — you need to be busy.
Work life balance is important to me so I don’t operate on a window of hours. For instance, my kids come home at 4pm each day. I'm not going to schedule a meeting unless a client demands it but I'm not going to suggest it either. I get all of my non-meeting work done during the day or at night when I don’t need to be available for the family.
I structure my life around the times I know I'm taking off. When you work with the right clients and at the right level (peer vs contractor) they have more respect for your time.
Would you consider ever going back to the 9-5 role? What makes it attractive or what would prevent you from going back?
I hate to say it, but yeah!
So the hardest thing about being on my own is that I'm on my own. I love being around people. I love collaborating on things. And while constantly I chat with my clients, I’'m not on a team. I'm not a part of what they're doing and their culture
So for the right thing, I would consider going back to 9-5 because I'm looking at work for the challenge rather than just the job.
Will you tell us more about your book ‘Product-Led SEO’? Would you recommend it to SEO freelancers?
I wrote the book for two reasons. Reason number one was because I wanted to be able to differentiate myself from other consultants as I think it's very easy to just say I'm an SEO freelancer and I know what I'm talking about. The book helps with establishing trust.
The book was a significant investment of time. It took me two years. I wanted to have this asset and I figured it would be a business card; I'd meet potential clients and say, well, here's my book, it outlines my approach to growth marketing.
Reason number two I wrote a book was because I wanted to be able to put my thoughts down to how I think SEO should be structured. SEO is a product that really focuses on the long view of what you're (as a company) creating. It is not about what you should optimize for today or what you can do to increase rank for one keyword. I wanted to share my approach to SEO with all my past jobs and now what I offer as a consultant. How do I really strategize, research and develop this process and then navigate internally to make it all happen. This is essentially how making a product works, so it made sense that I refer to it as product-led SEO.
I never expected that I would sell more than, let's say, 500 copies of my books. I’ve been fortunate to now sell several thousands! Should my book be relevant for freelancers? I guess my book is relevant for anyone in SEO, because apparently, there's an audience for it that wants to think about SEO from a broader strategic standpoint.
When I wrote the book, I was cognizant of the fact that no SEO book had been written like this, every SEO book on Amazon is very practical. Here's how the keywords are here's how to do keyword research. Here's what Google is, here's what an algorithm is. And I didn't really focus on this. I really wanted to stay at a high level. For example. when I talk about linking, I focus on a high level view of what links are and why they matter. Rather than here's a quick hack of how to find links on Reddit. I'm not talking about how here's how you're going to build a widget that will work today but potentially won’t have value in the future. I wrote about linking and why it matters in the first place.
So that's why I wrote the book. I think that this kind of thinking is relevant for anyone. Anybody that wants to learn more about strategic SEO that's not yet familiar with it from their own practice will get value from the book. Check out the book and feel free to disagree with it (and me).
Finally, what recommendations would you give to someone who wants to start freelancing? Any specific training/books/blogs to look into?
Focus on sales.
I think anybody that wants to start freelancing probably has some level of competence in their ability, but they may not have that level of competence to sell it.
There's a vast range between knowing and being an expert so I don't expect that everyone is a fit for freelancing. The difference between being a successful freelancer and an unsuccessful Freelancer is the ability to sell your ideas and to convince someone that you know what you're doing well enough that they should pay for it.
I think that is a critical skill and of course effective communication. Can you convey what you're thinking and writing? Can you convey what you're thinking with data?
You could be a great SEO consultant, and you can even sell the deal to an executive. But if you can't get engineers to execute on your recommendations, then your going have a hard time justifying your fee to the company.
Note from Nick: Eli also mentioned The Million Dollar Consulting by Alan Weiss for those who love business books.
Thank you so much, Eli, for participating in this month’s Six-Figure Freelancer. If you enjoyed this post you may also want to read last month’s interview with Ronell Smith.
If you are a freelance/consultant (full-time OR part-time) that earns 100K or more and want to be featured in a future issue - email me at NICK@NICKLEROY.COM