A couple of my friends in web design, Carrie and Sara, asked me to write this post, so here it is.
Not too long ago, I chose a new direction for my consultancy, and a specific vertical to serve. By writing down my thought process, and why I made the decision to niche down with SEO for manufacturers, it might help other web professionals with their own positioning.
First, Let Me Set the Stage
Before we get too far, let me back all the way up to the beginning.
I didn’t start learning web development until most people are already deep into their career. I was 38 and working at a Wonder Bread factory when I decided that I had to do something different. The baking industry (for workers) at that time, was not going to get any better. This was around 2009, and I had already been a member of the Bakers Union in Northern California for about 18 years. Most of the people that I had worked with in retail bakeries, and in the factory, were trying to get to their pension. When you are in your 40s or 50s, at that point in your life, most people would say that starting over is too much of a risk. In fact, when the factory shuttered in late 2012, most of the people I knew there were out of work for months, and some, a couple of years. Same thing with the people I used to work with at the retail bakery, they had come too far to deviate from their path.
I actually know one other guy from the factory that was going to school at the same time I was. You see, at that time, around 2008-2009, there were a lot of things happening inside the union and the industry itself, as well as with my own repetitive motion injuries, that made me decide to change my career totally.
By the end of this post, it will be clear why I’m taking the time to tell you all of this.
At that time, we would get letters every quarter on the status of the union pension fund. At this point, it had just begun to become underfunded, partially because the company was pulling out of the pension funding. (This is right before they wet bankrupt for the second time in seven years). On top of that, I was having back spasms because of repetitive motion from working on the shipping line. Under our contract, they could make you stay for eleven hours a shift, and there was nothing you could do about it. If things were running behind, that could get extended to fourteen hours (if you volunteered to stay that long). I knew that my body couldn’t hold up, and I needed to make a transition.
That was the point where I started to go to online school, learning HTML and CSS, and eventually building web pages for practice.
Putting in the Reps
I built websites for my own experimentation with CSS and jQuery, then came across WordPress, right around 2011. I was building sites for friends, whether they asked for them or not. Eventually, I built started building sites for local businesses.
Not long after this, the factory shut down, and ever since then, I’ve been making my full-time income from building websites, and more recently, from doing SEO for clients.
So, I haven’t worked a 9 to 5 since 2012, instead I’ve been working for myself as Lockedown Design & SEO. Most of that time, I was positioning myself as a WordPress developer — as a freelancer who could build WordPress themes, and that’s what I did. I always had at least one agency partner that I was working with. There were four different ones that I had worked with during this time — from 2012 to 2017, three of them were on the East Coast. On top of this, I mixed in my own personal clients. After about five years of being solo, I’d built up my business to where I was earning a decent amount, and in 2017, I had my best financial year ever. Up to that point, the most I had ever earned was in 2002, when I was working 48 hours a week managing a retail bakery, and another 15 to 20 hours as a shift supervisor at a local Starbucks. (At the time, I was saving up for a down payment on a house in the suburbs with my second wife).
Fast forward again to about midway through 2017.
Success is the Enemy of Greatness
So last year, I was doing pretty good. But, I was doing way more subcontracting to agencies than I probably should have been. It was starting to feel uneasy because I couldn’t use most of that work to win new clients. Even though I built sites and done web projects for many regional brands, and a few particularly large brands, the work wasn’t benefiting me long-term.
One of the things that had really been imprinted on me from my life as a 9 to 5 employee is that I never wanted to have my fate in someone else’s hands ever again. I was focusing too much on building empires for other people, when from the start, my vision and goal had been to build something larger than myself, and create work for other people.
At that time I knew that I needed to make a change.
Making the Decision, Then Committing To It
In 2017 I made a couple of big decisions.
Step One: I wasn’t going to subcontract to other agencies as a WordPress developer anymore. I contacted the agency I was doing contract work for, and let them know that my rate was going to go up by 2.5x. I knew that this would effectively end our working relationship, which it did.
This would leave me more time to work on my own clients, and fortify my client roster. But this was not the only big decision I had come to by this point.
The other big decision I had made was that I wanted to position away from being a WordPress developer, and focus on being an SEO consultancy. This was a scary change to commit to for a significant reason.
Up to that point, I was ranking number one in Sacramento for “WordPress web design” or “WordPress developer”. I had that ranking on — ahem — lock down — for about two and a half years. So, changing my positioning would be turning away money, right?
My Experience With Positioning (and Ranking Well) For WordPress
While it is true that I would get a lot of inquiries that turned into client work, many of the inquiries that I would get were “rescue projects”. People would hire an offshore team, or another local developer, and not be happy with the results. I’d say about 65% of the people searching specifically for WordPress needed someone to “fix” their code, or get the last 20% of their project done. Sometimes, I would also get inquiries from other local agencies needing a “rush job” for a client project.
The problem with both of these scenarios is 9 times out of 10, the budget was inadequate for the expectations. Rescue jobs, if done right, would often need to be re-coded from the ground up, and very seldom would prospects have the necessary budget left for that. Another scenario I encountered would be prospects attempting to leverage the threat of bringing in a new developer to get what they wanted from their current development team.
While early in my career, I accepted many clients that were probably not ideal, continuing to be “the WordPress guy” or “a WordPress developer” was not really winning me the type of prospective leads that I was looking for.
Part of this might be that WordPress development itself is, (however unfairly), perceived as something different than other forms of web development. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that many agencies and freelancers starting out essentially buy a ThemeForest theme and call that “web development”, and so the entire market seems very commodified. (Note: During the five year stretch from 2012 to 2017, I built 80 custom built websites, most custom built from the ground up on WordPress.)
For whatever reason, I know that my positioning at that time was not solid enough to get my business to the place I wanted it to be.
I felt like I had paid my dues, and it was time to make a change.
Changing My Offering
To be fully transparent, when I made the switch to being a SEO agency instead of a website development agency in autumn of 2017, I still had a foundation of retainer clients. I wasn’t starting from absolute zero. Most all of these clients have been with me for about two years, give or take a few months. By having those retainer contracts (for WordPress development and general web-mastery), I had enough of a foundation to make a pivot, even if there was no new work coming in.
So, why change to SEO?
For one, in the WordPress landscape right now, there are changes that are being made. Anybody who follows WordPress knows about Gutenberg (or they should). Maybe WordPress will be better for the changes when it’s all said and done, but it made me realize something. My core offering shouldn’t be tied to something that may or may not become a commodity in a few years. It would be infinitely better if my core offering was platform agnostic, and could deliver value to my clients, no matter what technology they use to build their website.
Also, to be quite honest, I wanted to change my positioning to something where the ROI to the client was more obvious. Don’t get me wrong, web design is downright vital to both the BRAND™, and more importantly, the revenue of any given company. The problem lies in how most agencies (at least the ones that I’ve seen in the wild) measure the efficacy of a website redesign.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this: most agencies that specialize in design do an excellent job of making things look more appealing, but a less than stellar job of measuring how much those designs actually impacted the top-line revenue of a company over time.
To be fair, this isn’t always the fault of the web agency. Many businesses don’t have time to do the things that are necessary to drive traffic to a new website. These can include, creating new content, building up relevant links to their site, or hiring a marketing person to be their voice on social media.
I wanted to position my services around SEO. It had been something that I had done before. I had never taken a class on SEO, but I had some side projects of my own, in addition to friend’s sites that I had done SEO for before. And those had been really successful!
I figured, why not just do SEO all the time? I could help businesses with this regardless of what platform their website was built on.
There’s another reason I wanted to move in this direction. Typically, with SEO, it’s more of an ongoing effort. In any competitive vertical, it takes more than a few weeks to move a website from not ranking at all to being found in search. There’s usually a lot of work to do: creating content, improving user experience of the site, building back links, and so much more.
With web design projects, you usually build the site, launch it, and move on to the next project. With SEO agencies, companies are on retainer contracts, and the agency is doing SEO work for them each month. Instead of having to continually be scouring for website builds for the pipeline, I could instead focus on a smaller number of clients, do deeper and more impactful work for them, and build a more stable business model. So far, this seems to be working out, as the clients I’ve been working with are seeing real revenue roll in because customers are finding their products in search. Not to mention, if they need a custom website build, I can actually handle that too. There’s no downside to this business model, as long as you can provide results.
This is the thing I enjoy about SEO. There’s no room to BS your clients about ROI. Either you drive traffic or you don’t. Either they sell more products in organic search or they don’t.
The ROI isn’t esoteric. It’s tangible and real. This means companies are less likely to haggle over price — because they are getting real sales out of it, which is the whole point of having a website in the first place.
Building Something Beyond Myself
I’ve said this since day one. I wanted to build something beyond myself. I wanted to build a team. I can’t do that unless I have the right business model in place. Ergo: Multiple retainer contracts going in parallel. That was a big part of my decision there. The key: focusing on something I knew I was already good at, that ties into my larger long-term plans for my business.
Who To Serve?
The final part of the puzzle, what vertical to niche down on? Literally, who should I serve?
I’d read Michael Port’s book, Book Yourself Solid before. I had done about the initial homework a few times over the past few years, but something always felt like it was missing.
A few years ago, I tried positioning around e-commerce development with WooComerce. While I had gotten some work out of that, it never caught fire the way I hoped it would. In hindsight, I probably didn’t succeed with this positioning because I was still too focused on the technology, and not enough on the intended audience.
This time around, I wanted to focus more on blue-collar industries. After a couple of months, I decided that my target audience needed to specifically be manufacturers. There were a couple of reasons for this.
When I was focusing on general web development, it was attracting people with budgets that were all over the board. A site that is labor intensive for one business may be worth significantly more or less than the same work for another business. It all depends on the perceived return on that investment to the purchaser.
For example, a small business just opening its doors may not want to spend that much on a website, while an established company with a steady revenue stream might be willing to spend more.
In my experience, the amount of money that a business generates from it’s website is the #1 factor in determining how much they will be willing to spend on a redesign or overhaul of that site. Here’s why this is a crucial factor.
If you have only worked at a generalist web design or development studio, you may not realize is that are costs associated with a lot of SEO work. If you plan on paying someone to create content for your clients, that will cost money. Many of the associations and memberships you may want your clients to join, for both traffic and back links, cost money. Also, most of the SEO software you will need to do an effective job (Ahrefs, SEMRush, Moz Pro, Majestic, SerpWorx, etc.) costs a certain amount each month.
Sure, there is a certain amount of SEO that you can do for relatively little cost. But having a certain amount of budget is absolutely necessary to do effective SEO work. Having clients that do not have a set monthly budget is going to be an uphill battle for you, and will most likely leave both you and your clients unhappy.
With that in mind, my thought process was: who will have the ability to pay a monthly retainer? Who will benefit from SEO and see a positive ROI? And what verticals need help? That also have a desire to win at SEO?
My answer to this question was manufacturing and industrial firms, based in the US, formed after the recession of 2008.
Here is my reasoning for choosing this particular niche.
Most manufacturers that are newer are trying to compete both with international firms, and established companies here in the US that have been around for decades. Newer manufacturers have websites that are likely in the first iteration — V1.0. These sites likely have very little content and almost no back links. These factors add up to poor SEO.
Companies that have been around for decades probably had sites that were around since the dawn of the internet. These are most of the sites that rank well. Part of the reason is that they received back links for many years, because they were the companies that were around at the dawn of the web.
A great deal of the links that these legacy companies have cannot be easily replicated. The websites that they are back linked from oftentimes are not being maintained, meaning a lot of outreach goes into a black hole. This means that newer companies have to try and get links from different sources.
The incumbent manufacturing websites usually fall into one of two categories: the site is modern and kept up to date, or the site is falling behind the times. My goal is to make my clients as competitive as possible with the incumbent manufacturing websites, while beating the older sites with superior content, user experience, and back link profile.
By picking this vertical, it does a few things. The ROI for the client is there. I work with companies that both have the ability to invest in a prolonged SEO campaign, and I can operate at a margin that is acceptable.
I know that there is a huge need in this vertical, because most of the newer manufacturing companies have founding members still doing sales calls, going to trade shows, and other growth activities. They have more money than time, while the prospects I am moving away from have more time than money.
This is the sweet spot that I’m really focusing on right now. Manufacturers that were formed after the 2008 recession, that are trying to compete with the larger firms, that don’t have a marketing team, that can benefit by selling their products online and B2B. I hope that’s a specific enough niche. So far, I’ve been doing a really good job with the people that I have been working with, and they are increasing sales through their sites.
Friends, I hope this answers your question, and gives you some more insight. If you want to give me feedback, you know where to find me on Twitter.