FIRED To $165,036.20 in 8 Months. My SEO Freelancing Story
The true, completely transparent story of how I went from managing an SEO team at a well-known agency to becoming a full-time SEO freelancer.
Welcome to the inaugural issue of The SEO Freelancer.
The purpose of this monthly newsletter is to help aspiring SEO freelancers, both part-time and full-time, tackle many of the issues that every freelancer experiences at one time or another. Everything from setting up an LLC, setting hourly pricing, and even dealing with angry clients.
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Picture this: it was a normal day of work. I was a Director at a large, global marketing agency based in Minneapolis overseeing the SEO Team. COVID-19 had struck and like many companies during this time, the company was losing revenue left and right. I wasn’t too concerned as SEO is a very forward-thinking and efficient channel. My job, especially as the lead of the SEO team, was safe…right?
One day I was talking to a member of my team via Slack when I received an email from my boss. It was a Zoom meeting with him and an individual from HR.
Oh boy. I saw the writing on the wall.
Goodbye SEO Team: ~30 Days
When the meeting occurred, I was initially informed that members of my team had been let go (without my knowledge). I was then told that my role was also going to be eliminated. Unlike the rest of my team, I had ~30 days to wrap everything up. It was at this time I learned the full impact COVID-19 was having on our clients and, in turn, the agency’s revenue.
KEY TAKEAWAY: Just because SEO is in high demand doesn’t mean your job is safe. I won an award, was promoted and given a 10K raise just months before being let go.
Also - diversify your SEO team’s revenue…but that’s a topic for another post.
Shit. What Next?
I was fortunate enough to have ~30 days to figure out my next adventure prior to losing my paycheck. A small 2-week severance and unused PTO helped extend the runway a little bit.
My wife and I talked at length about my options. I had wanted to go out on my own for years but with 3 young kids it just didn’t seem like the right time. We both agreed—the best path forward would be to get another 9-5 and re-evaluate going out on my own post COVID-19.
Prior to my employment ending, I identified two FT opportunities that interested me. One was a local agency. The current owner of this agency was open to bringing me on as a part owner. The other option was a Senior Manager in-house SEO position at a local Fortune 500 company. I did talk to a few other folks about additional opportunities, but we’ll focus on these two.
Fortune 500 Company
I applied to the open position and pretty quickly received a screening interview. It went well and I passed the initial screening.
The second interview was with an individual that oversaw SEO and a few other media channels. Things went well. I went on to the next round.
A third interview was with someone who would be my peer (another Sr Manager). The conversation was light. We got along and had some good small talk about various SEO topics floating around the industry. It was recommended that I move forward to the fourth interview.
By the fourth interview, I was drained. The number of hurdles I had to jump over and the interview process as a whole felt ridiculous. This was the moment when deep down I believed that going out on my own full-time would be my best option. However, I was still committed to marching forward and reassessing my options in a year.
Interview four was actually two separate interviews, one with someone in an adjacent team and the final interview with the manager of the person I chatted with during interview 2. The interviews seemed to go well.
Fast forward 2 weeks and I get the call.
I didn’t get the job.
The best part: When pressing HR for feedback on areas I could improve on for future interviews I was told “We don’t release this information.”
I was a bit bummed when I found out I didn’t get the job at the Fortune 500 company, but not overly concerned. That’s because I had another opportunity.
I’m friends with a local SEO agency here in Minneapolis. I had confided in him about my situation while actively talking to the fortune 500 company. He brought up the idea of potentially joining his company. We knew a gap in salary would exist and discussed ownership being a bridge.
Given my original priority to nail a 9-5 gig and simply “survive” until the end of COVID-19, this didn’t (at first) seem like a good idea. However, after going through the ridiculous interview process at the Fortune 500 company, I thought this was a sign I was heading down the right path.
Joining this emerging agency could provide stability while also feeding my urge to go out on my own and create something awesome.
A few more conversations about compensation and ownership stakes lead to a final (mutual) decision.
We were not going to move forward.
Two Strikes. Times Running Out
At this point, I had about 10 days left at my current job. I absolutely hated the idea of going through more interviews for various open roles. I had (low) offers from two agencies that I could fall back on but neither excited me.
I. Was. Drained.
This is when I made the decision. I was going to freelance full-time as of May 2nd, 2020.
My wife and I agreed that I would test freelancing until July. If I couldn’t make the equivalent of my “normal paycheck” by then, I would go back to searching for a “9-5”.
I did it. I finally committed. I had 3 kids and a wife to provide for.
Failure wasn’t an option.
I’m Doing It!
My last day of my 9-5 employment was Friday, April 29th, 2020.
Shutting my computer down that evening was absolutely terrifying. The courier came a few days later and all my company materials were exchanged for everything I had stashed at my desk. #gulp
May 2nd was day one of going out completely on my own. I remember being terrified but also extremely excited. This was my time to prove my value. All the politics, managers who scolded me, companies that had let me go, and those who didn’t hire me provided even more motivation to succeed.
Let’s. Do. This.
Month 1: $10,559.85
During my last ~30 days at my “9-5” I made a massive list of folks that I knew that owned a business or were decision-makers within one. I emailed about a dozen asking two questions.
1. I am going out on my own. Do you have time for a call to share your advice and or tips you might have for me?
2. Do you have any work that you need help with?
KEY TAKEAWAY: This would be a good point for me to remind you: without an established network and experience working in SEO roles, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to be successful as a FT freelancer. I did not simply wake up one morning and decide to jump headfirst into the unknown. I’d worked in SEO roles for years, both as a FTE and as an occasional freelancer on the side. I also have worked really hard to build out my network (publishing my weekly newsletter, chiming in on Twitter conversations, regularly keeping up with friends and contacts in the industry). What I’m saying here is that experience and your network matter greatly.
OK, so back to the emails I sent out to everyone I knew.
Nearly everyone took me up on #1. Many shared their experiences, and everyone offered advice as to what I should do. Only a few folks had work for me, but I was hungry to show my value. Through various efforts, I landed the following paid gigs in month 1.
The SEO agency owner who we couldn’t come to an agreement previously had a small project he needed help on over the next few months. $333.00
A 2 hour SEO consultation - $150.00
A very small HREFlang project - $450.00
50% payment from a technical SEO audit I took on - $1750.00
SEO strategy consulting session and documentation deliverable - $666.00
In addition to these new projects, I had a few side projects and affiliate sites that I had been working on in addition to my “9-5” job.
A project for another agency I had been helping with overflow work for several years prior - $468.75
A massive $20K website relaunch project I signed in April prior to knowing my job was going to be eliminated - $6,525.00.
A small ongoing affiliate commission - $32.10
Advertising on a small niche website I owned - $85.00
Advertising on the #SEOForLunch newsletter - $100.00
Month 1 resulted in $10,559.85. Most of this came from existing freelancing efforts but it was critical in meeting my goal of making more than my “9-5” monthly income.
Month 2: This Is Working!
Remember when I said failure wasn’t an option? Every day I woke up looking for new sources of revenue. In month two more opportunities popped up on top of the recurring work I had in place.
I sold 12 months worth of sponsorship in the #SEOForLunch - $1200.00
A new monthly retainer client - $1300 (this is the cheapest I’ve EVER billed and was a learning experience in itself)
I landed a second website migration/launch project for $12,000 over 3 months.
A one-off technical SEO project - $1275.00
a “mini” SEO audit for $750.00
I made $13,945.10 in month two. Most of this work came from referrals
Breaking Down Months 1-8
By month three I was starting to feel a bit more comfortable. I continued with the mindset of failure not being an option. I turned down very little work and continued to increase my revenue nearly every month. Surviving month one turned to month two and then three and four etc.
Here’s a breakdown of my freelancing services vs affiliate income.
Revenue broken out by month
May 2020 - $10,559.85
June 2020 - $13,945.10
July 2020 - $20,112.10
August 2020 - $25,861.80
September 2020 - $16,113.50
October 2020 - $18,819.00
November 2020 - $10,636.20
December 2020 - $48,396.55*
*Note - In December I had two clients make up for late payments bringing their accounts current before the end of the calendar year. I also had nearly 10K in affiliate payments come through right before the new year. December is not a typical month.
Why Share This Personal Data? Am I just bragging?
The SEO Freelancer newsletter is going to be packed with my personal experiences freelancing. I’ll be sharing tips from my 10+ years freelancing, both on the side while being employed “9-5” and as a full-time SEO freelancer.
With that said, I feel it’s very important to establish trust with my readers. I’m not trying to brag—I’m committing to being as transparent as possible. I will share both the good and the bad along the way, believe me.
By sharing this level of data I want to:
Encourage those on the fence to give freelancing a shot. You CAN do it!
Provide insights and advice to existing freelancers to make your life easier.
Publish content on a topic that doesn’t get covered enough in the SEO space.
You can sign up for email alerts for when new posts are published.
A Special Thank You
There are a lot of people who have supported me on my journey. A few people I want to shout out specifically.
My family - First and foremost I want to thank my family. Without their sacrifices and support I would have never been able to chase my dream nor write this post.
Griffin Roer - For encouraging me to go out on my own YEARS before I had the guts to actually do it. You had more confidence in my abilities than I did. Thank you!
Tim Brown - For sharing your agency building experiences and for applauding me for going after what I’m worth.
Trevor Stolber - For providing me my very first project as a full-time freelancer.
Rob Wormley - For always letting me bounce ideas off of him and for helping edit this and future issues of TheSEOFreelancer.
#SEOForLunch subscribers - Several projects came from loyal readers of my weekly SEO newsletter. Thank you!
Want to know what to look forward to next month?
Here are some topics I’ll be writing about in future issues.
Setting up your company - sole proprietorship vs LLC vs s-corp.
Saving for (and paying) self-employment taxes.
Establishing your rates and when to increase them.
Diversifying your revenue.
Handling difficult clients.
Transparency and client communication.
And SOOOO much more…Don’t miss out, sign up for TheSEOFreelancer.