CareersSEO

SEO Careers: Freelancing Vs Agency (My Experience)

By August 23, 2018 8 Comments

love freelancing.

Nope, I don’t work in my PJs in front of Jeremy Kyle and I can’t clock off after 30 minutes a day. I’ve never worked on a Caribbean beach or snapped a selfie by the pool with my laptop. That’s not to say I don’t travel. One of the biggest benefits of freelancing for me is that ability to travel. But I have a 1 year old and a 3 year old and I simply don’t hate myself enough to drag them on 9 hour flights every other week.

But I get to take long weekends away and I’ll go spend a few days in Tenerife seeing family next month all without having to have holiday signed off. And if we do go overseas for a few days, I can work from the apartment in an early morning (when I’m at my most productive) or in the evening.

I can work from anywhere with reasonable WiFi and I love that so much.

But how does freelancing stack up for me compared with an agency side role?

9 Years in an Agency

I have only ever worked at one SEO agency. I started at Tecmark in 2009 in a trainee role and left my role as Search Director in 2018. 9 years in an agency is a pretty decent shift in the SEO game, relatively speaking.

I lasted 9 years for 3 reasons:

  • I loved the environment
  • I was constantly learning
  • I had freedom and flexibility

Tecmark was the best start to my career I could have hoped for. My first SEO role, my first real experience of agency side work and my first exposure to all the “commercial,” stuff that surrounds the actual campaign delivery.

And I learnt loads from founders, Kevin and Rick.

In my first 3 months at Tecmark, I went from having just read around a bit on SEO to feeling reasonably confident running a campaign.

I loved it. It was exciting.

Year 1 was made up of definitely-more-black-than-grey-hat days of article directories and sidebar links and was so memorable for me. We were a small team led by Kevin, a massively skilled and very competitive SEO guy. He was happy to equip me with knowledge, then throw me in the deep end, let me try and swim and really only rescue me if it looked like I was heading for certain death. That’s how I learn best.

The other founder is very much on the commercial side. And on top of everything I was learning from an SEO perspective, I was developing positioning skills, account management skills and an insight into what really drives a business. Over time, I was able to deal with clients, pitch for new business, even speak at huge conferences and represent the company.

I was given the freedom and flexibility to learn new skills, promoted to Digital Marketing Manager, Head of Search and then Search Director.

The team grew. There were some brilliant people involved and I was often training and supporting that growing team. Just a handful of the people who joined the team and who I most enjoyed working with include (not exhaustively!):

I knew the time was right to move on when it stopped being exciting. We had some amazing clients and did some great work. But I was less and less hands on. That’s normal.

Career Progression and Deciding to Move On

Career progression in any industry is, more often than not, all about rewarding people who do well by promoting them into positions where they do less of what they enjoy and more of managing other people to do that stuff (sometimes less well).

I’m not a natural people manager. I wanted to progress and was supported in that progression. I was offered all the support I could have hoped for when it came to the management side of things. But as the years went on it became clearer to me than I simply do not want to be a manager.

The stuff I love is planning and implementing SEO strategies, changing the face of businesses by generating organic revenue and competing with other websites.

I love ideation, content planning and enjoy getting lost in Search Console.

And as would happen in any organisation, I was simply less and less hands on.

The other big frustration agency side for me was how much of what happens relies on other people or is out of your control. Whether new contracts come in might depend on what a sales person did. An absolute f**k up could happen because someone in the team dropped the ball. A client might leave because their Account Manager left the business and they had a strong relationship with them.

And ultimately, 9 years on from starting at Tecmark, I was now married with two young children. Just look at those faces:

MacNaught Juniors

I didn’t want to be commuting to the city centre, working the long days that are sometimes necessary in that environment and then missing my sons’ bed time.

So I decided it was time to move on.

Freelance – the Obvious Choice

The reasons I left Tecmark were the same reasons I opted not to go and work for anyone else. Anywhere I would have considered going, the things I didn’t like would have been the same. So freelancing was the obvious route for me.

As a freelancer, new business, contract renewals and delivery is my responsibility. And I’m human. I’m not saying I won’t ever drop the ball or f**k up. But at least it’s all in my control.

Maybe I’m just a control freak, eh?

But more than that – my income and my time is in my control. Yes, I work some long hours some weeks, but I benefit directly. And while I might be up until midnight poring over an audit or up at the crack of dawn emailing journalists on the other side of the world (cos timezones), I can also be sure of putting my sons to bed every single night and taking long head-clearing walks in the hills in an afternoon should I feel I need it that day.

I’ve not even been freelancing for a year yet, but there are some things I learnt quickly:

1. Freelancing comes with admin

Paperwork is Hell.

F***ing admin. Invoicing. Credit control. Sorting out insurance. Checking over terms and conditions documents.

Meh.

It’s s**t.

Fortunately for me, I’m trading as a limited company and my husband is a 50% shareholder. He’s also more organised than I am and does a far better job at handling it than I do.

I deliver the work. He deals with all the stuff I am crap at. We work well together like that.

2. New business and account management takes up time

I was well prepared for this after years in an agency. I already enjoyed the new business and account management side of things and felt confident.

The agency side experience has served me so well in this regard.

I learnt how to write proposals properly and to formulate plans and campaigns that genuinely achieve business objectives that matter. I learnt how to position those and communicate them (and enjoy doing it).

But more importantly than all of that?

I learnt when not to write a proposal – when not to quote for business… when to opt out. I speak to freelancers now who spend a lot of time quoting for work they rarely win. New business can eat your week up if you’re not careful. Honestly, I think learning when not to quote for work is one of the most valuable things I have taken from my time at Tecmark and that is now really benefitting me.

3. Working in your PJs isn’t a thing…

Well not for me anyway. I’m sure some people work very well in their pyjamas. But I don’t. I desperately need a certain separation between home and work and even took office space close to my house in order to further separate the two.

I work better away from the house – whether that’s an office or a coffee shop doesn’t matter. I just work better away from the house.

4. At certain times of the day, I am crap.

I work well between 7am and about midday. And I work really well in evenings. I’m pretty crap in the early to mid afternoon. My productivity levels are significantly lower and I know now to try and avoid writing lengthy documentation during those times.

Freelancing affords me the flexibility to work to my productivity patterns.

5. The freelancing community is bloody brilliant

There are a lot of freelance communities out there. Join one. Personally, I cannot recommend Freelance Heroes enough. You can always count on advice from people experiencing or who have been through the same challenges you’re facing.

Freelance heroes community

Image via http://www.edagoodman.com/freelance-heroes/

6. Freelancing doesn’t have to be lonely…

One of my biggest worries when going into freelance SEO consultancy was whether or not it would be lonely to work in isolation quite a lot.

But it isn’t.

Yes, there are days I’m working completely solo. But I’m also collaborating with other freelancers or even just getting together regularly with them to talk through challenges. I’ve taken someone on (starting in September) to help with some of the more task driven stuff, so I’ll have more company then too.

I like the fact I can work alone when I want to (sometimes I am not a people person). But equally, I find there’s always company available when you need it or want it.

7. Financial fear or financial freedom?

It was a worry at first. I have a mortgage and two children and was about to voluntarily wave goodbye to a comfortable salary.

But I now feel like I have more financial freedom than ever. I’m in control, to a much greater degree, of my income.

Being employed is celebrated as financial security. But how secure, really, is having 100% of your income coming from one source when you think about it? What if the company folds? Or you’re made redundant?

I’ve really enjoyed the freedom and control over my income so far.

8. There is little as valuable as a good accountant

I have an accountant supporting and my husband doing the day to day “financey” stuff (and chasing me relentlessly for receipts). I’m fortunate. But you really do need professional advice on the finance side of things if it isn’t something you’ve any experience in.

Get a good accountant and some good support and you can shake a lot of worry off and save a lot of time.

I love it.

So far, so good. There are long days and stressy days and there are some days I wish I could just down tools and go to the pub with colleagues I no longer have! But the vast majority of days, I’m really enjoying what I’m doing and it feels like a long time since I’ve enjoyed work so much.

It won’t be for everyone. But it’s definitely for me.

 

 

 

 

Join the discussion 8 Comments

  • Simon Cox says:

    Great article and I can empathise with a lot here!
    I like to separate work from home and I used to have a long commute on the train which gave me time to listen to industry podcasts on the way to work and to chill listening to music on the way home. Now I work from home and I go out for a 20-minute walk before I sit down to work – it’s a great bit of exercise and allows me to think through the day before I get distracted. We don’t have a dog but if we did that would be a good incentive for a morning and evening (to work and back home from work) walk!

    • stacey says:

      Makes a huge difference to get out for a walk! I tend to do mine middle of the day rather than first thing as I tend to lag early afternoon.

      Thanks for reading!

  • Penni Stanton says:

    Stacey, this article really hit home. We are coming up to our one year of freelancing date, also a two person LTD where I’m lucky enough to have my (almost) wife do exactly what your husband does for you.

    Number 4 resonated, a lot! I regularly stop at 2pm and spend time with family/exercise/prepare dinner or whatever else as I’m useless at that time of day, then I go back to work later and have a really productive push. 7am is also my golden zone. Magic stuff happens work-wise at that time of day.

    Simon – the dog point is a good one. We are really considering adding one to our family in a year or two now that we both aren’t needed at office for long hours.

    Massive congratulations for taking the leap. It sounds like you are already on to a successful and happier lifestyle.

    • stacey says:

      Thank you, Penni! And thanks so much for reading.

      The setup you and your wife-to-be have sounds awesome. Fantastic to meet you both in Cambridge and your travel plans epitomise how fantastic it is to be able to generate an income in that way!

      Congrats on the one year date 😀

  • bibi raven says:

    Oh wow, just read this and checked so many points of recognition. I’m a mom and a link builder, quit my job two years ago, never looked back. I can’t lie and say it’s been easy…the biggest hurdle has actually been MYSELF. Focusing, getting over my imposter syndrome, becoming unhealthy due to sitting on my ass all day. But now I found a pretty good balance. One of the most important things was something you mentioned, becoming part of a community. I became a member of a great SEO facebook group, and now we run a daily video meeting work session for the members. We talk a bit about work or anything that comes up, and then work for a couple of hours with the webcam on and the mic off. It helps with concentration, accountability and we support each other wherever we can. I think nowadays it is so important to have contact with other humans, especially with the recent increase in suicides (also in the SEO industry). If you like, hop by! Just check out Dan Ray’s group on FB: https://www.facebook.com/groups/danray – I will give you a link to the zoom sessions we run there. It can be a bit awkward in the beginning, working while people are watching you. But once you get over that, it’s so valuable 🙂 Some people even come in hours before it starts – just for extra focus. Anyhoo, thanks so much for this article 🙂 – Bibi

    • stacey says:

      Thanks so much, Bibi! Seems like a great idea – working like that with others. Will take a look at the group. Thanks again!

  • Rene says:

    Hi Stacey,

    What a great read! I’m also currently freelancing after leaving the 9-5. I would be grateful if you could expand a little bit more on the topic of “when not to write a proposal”. I too have spent time on writing proposals which didn’t result in business. Now I ask for a budget beforehand.

    Which criteria are you using when deciding if writing a proposal is worth it?

    Thank you very much & Kind regards,
    Rene

    • stacey says:

      Hi Rene!

      Thanks so much for your comment. More than happy to share my views on when not to quote etc! Feel free to pop me an email (email address in footer) and I’ll shoot some thoughts over.

      Congrats on taking the leap too!

      Thanks,

      Stacey

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