I Started Doing SEO At 13, Now I Make Over $4M/Year With It
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Harry Sanders - Founder and Director of Studiohawk. Studiohawk was designed and crafted to specialize in one thing: SEO. I’m a firm believer that people can’t be the ‘best at everything’ which is why Studiohawk set out with such a dedicated focus. We chose to be the best at SEO. Essentially, we work with brands and businesses to develop content, studies, fix technical issues, and build digital PR to get our clients more clicks in organic search results.
Our customers include anyone from enterprise accounts right down to SMEs that we work with across Studiohawk. We also provide a learning service on our educational platform, Hawk Academy, which was launched in 2020. Studiohawk itself has been active over the last six years, achieving $6M in revenue and reaching a profit margin of 15-20%.
People may believe that the margin isn’t very high, but that’s because we truly focus our investment on doing amazing work. We want to be the best at what we do, and to be recognized for this over making a giant profit.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
My backstory came from a mix of ambition and the lessons I learned about myself. I got involved in affiliate SEO at 13, began working in an agency at 14, and then hit a period of my life at 17 which is best summed up as an ‘ego trip’ - and not necessarily at all in a helpful way. It was at this time that I believed I was the ‘whizz-kid’ of SEO, making all of this money and having such a deep understanding of what SEO was.
It got to a point where I didn’t like the way the current agency was being run. There was a focus on making a huge profit and serving clients with ‘profit’ in mind. So, through being naive, stupid, and as young-minded as I was, I went out to start my own SEO company to be able to run things the way I wanted to. It was a time where my ego had ballooned in terms of how good I thought I was, yet I was severely naive to the way that the world worked. In a way, it was almost fortunate I went through the personal struggles that came my way, otherwise, the company wouldn’t have been successful if it had been so rigidly ego-driven as it had begun.
Quitting the agency I was working for and branching out on my own was in essence my way of ‘sticking it’ to them. I also wanted to focus solely on SEO, which at the time was quite unheard of. While SEO became massive over time, most agencies back then focused on full services rather than such a niche specialization. It wasn’t a thing at all at the time. My ambition going in was to be different; to focus on SEO and be transparent about it, to be good at it, and to be disciplined in it. It was the same idea as the purpose behind Hawk Academy - the market was begging for something like this to exist.
In saying that, when I started, I had no idea whether or not I would be successful. To me, getting paid an equivalent salary for doing it was a good measure of success. It turns out that far more success was to come. Still, it wasn’t easy at the start. I built up validation by performing SEO for free - a tactic I don’t necessarily recommend. I needed to build up clients and a reputation, almost out of desperation, but I knew my services were great. It eventually paid off, but I was homeless, couch surfing around Melbourne, and trying to make it through those tough seven months. Today the agency is thriving.
PICTURE: Harry's First Office in His Share House.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Studiohawk is super unique in the way that we don’t have any salespeople. Our account managers are also SEO Specialists, removing the middleman and allowing every client to work with their SEO ‘nerd’, and not some slick ‘salesperson’ in between. They want to be working with the person doing the actual SEO work. This was a process that we did early on that paid off for us.
Essentially, our job is to make sure that when people search online for office supplies, for cosmetics, or for virtually anything else imaginable that they require, it’s our clients that come up at the top of the Google organic listings. We do this by making the website as friendly as possible to Google and to the users who visit each page. We develop great authoritative content pieces and grow their ‘authority’ by getting what we call backlinks, (links from other credible websites), back to their own.
To get Studiohawk up and running, I spent all the spare money I had, which wasn’t a lot in the first place. I spent about $3000 on legal stuff, accounting fees, and registration. After that, that’s when the hard times and the hard work began. It wasn’t a particularly expensive experience at the start, especially comparing it to the $100,000 mark established for Hawk Academy, but it was all I had at the time.
We started out doing bits and pieces for clients and mainly focused on backlink acquisition. As the business has grown, and while we still specialize solely in SEO, we now cover the many different components encompassing it. This includes content production and digital PR for our clients.
Describe the process of launching the business.
As a service-based business, the launch was straightforward. Provide SEO, (as stated, initially for free), provide a website, and come up with a logo. Then it was all about drawing in and retaining clients and establishing a reputation.
To those who are thinking of launching a business, be prepared for everything at the start to go wrong. In the beginning, it’s really hard to get your first client or your first sale. It’s a real craft! I got my first client just from hounding networking events. But once you get your second and third clients the leads can start to accumulate if you do a really good job. The best advice I can give is to focus on taking such good care of your first few clients. Most other agencies are obsessed with bringing in new leads every day, but this can also increase your burn rate. The last thing an agency ever wants is to burn through clients to the point of getting a really bad reputation for themselves. If you hit this point, it’s hard to go back.
Once we got to the point of having more clients than we could handle it was time to think about hiring. StudioHawk made its first hire nearly twelve months after its inception. Then in the second year, we recruited two more people. That may sound like an incredibly slow pace in today's world, but that’s the time it took to build the business at a solid pace. Today we’re making a new hire every single month!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
My first customers were obtained by going to networking events. I attended everything from the chamber of commerce to technical events like the SEO Collective meetups in Melbourne. If I noticed anything free that I could squeeze myself into, I would make sure that I was present, and while I wasted a lot of time, I had a lot of time to waste.
Events like these were so good to attend, despite how I must have visually come across. I was couch surfing at the time, a little scruffy-lookin’, but there I was - walking into these fresh networking events saying, “I’m Harry! I do SEO.” I would receive ice for being so young, just seventeen at the time, and not so well dressed, strolling into a room with 30 and 40-year-olds and having people wonder, ‘who is this’, and ‘what’s going on here’? But I knew my niche and my expertise and sold it. It may have also helped that my field was ‘tech’, and not finance or something as equivalent where my appearance would’ve had me immediately dismissed.
It was from these events that I managed to secure some clients and things snowballed from there. Essentially, once people see you doing a great job you start to get referrals. Getting ‘Person A’ to tell ‘Person B’ about you is the most valuable thing you can do to grow your business. I’m still involved in a fair amount of networking today, but mostly through dinners, lunches, and organizations such as YPO or EO. I tend to network for contacts and ideas rather than hunt for new businesses.
You also have to be personable in business, and this was a process that I had to learn. I had to adapt and become charismatic, approachable, and outgoing. 17 year old me was a very different person. I was a quiet dude with prime SEO knowledge - that was my greatest strength. I always had an SEO answer to any SEO query that was thrown my way. I left people impressed with my nuggets of wisdom and how upfront and transparent I was with how I delivered that information. I told it how it was. What you see is what you get.
In terms of retention, our churn rate is usually very high because it takes time to get results. Our net promoter score is strong, which is abnormal for an SEO company. Our average client stays on for about 2.1 years.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’ve become profitable and have certainly grown. Our team has expanded, especially over the last year, and we were just recently awarded ‘Best Large Global SEO Agency’ at the Global Search Awards.
Funnily enough, there has been no money spent on advertising for StudioHawk. The product sells itself. We get our business through referrals and partners. Our cost per acquisition is therefore extremely low.
Our short-term goals are to lay down the foundations for the next level of our growth and to educate people in the SEO sphere. In the long run, we want to show the world that SEO is a much larger part of the marketing world. We want to break the myth of SEO misconceptions and, in turn, become the biggest SEO agency in the world.
Our second offering, Hawk Academy, is designed to be the education extension to our business. We’re looking to grow it into a global education platform that’s specifically catered for SEO. Another personal long-term goal, just for myself, would be to get to Level 99 Woodcutting in Runescape.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Ego is a great way of ruining your life. Creating win-win situations is the only way to have successful relationships in life. Noticing trends in the market and having impeccable timing is also crucial. SEO became a massive market and we were positioned perfectly to take it.
Test out your ideas. Build them out and over time. The old saying, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ is well-known for a reason.
A lot of business leaders go on about establishing habits, but I don’t have any. It’s not a mindset that I truly agree with. I don’t wake up at 6 AM. I don’t work out at the gym twice a day. If anything, I make sure I get eight hours of sleep a night to operate at my full potential when I wake up.
One trait I cannot stress enough is becoming an expert in time management! Determine what’s urgent and important, use priority matrices, get your inbox down to zero, and be sure to know how to delegate tasks and responsibilities when needed. This approach and form of management are so important for growth. In a way, it’s a large part of my role in the company. It’s like there’s a conveyor belt of tasks that come to me for sorting and I make sure they go to the right places and areas. Identifying where tasks should go is a strong skill, and I love all aspects of it.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Monday.com - It’s our number one platform to help manage leads, clients, partnerships, and proposals. With built-in automation, it’s most certainly one we couldn’t work without!
Slack - It greatly helps our teams to communicate in real-time, especially when people are working from home. Plus it’s great for GIPHYS!
There’s a 3x3 that we’re developing called ‘How’s Work’. Stay tuned about that.
Discord - We’re gamers and nerds at heart so we love Discord. Even though it’s built for the thrills of gaming, it’s nice to be able to sit in a chat room with colleagues to work through issues, manage clients, and keep each other company while we work from home.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Giftology is a favorite book of mine and one I truly recommend people should read. In terms of resources, I have had some amazing mentors, such as Graham who sits on our board, who have taught me and guided me through the business world.
I’m nothing if not a sponge - I know very little compared to these amazing people. I’m here to learn everything I can and then process that information.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Get started! It may sound cliche, but even if things go ‘belly up’, you can still learn something.
Don’t quit your job; you can always test the waters in the evenings and weekends. The attitude of losing stability within your employment to then have the time and energy to dedicate to this kind of pursuit - the whole ‘you’re only serious if you’re completely invested’ - isn’t something I specifically agree with.
Test out your ideas. Build them out and over time. The old saying, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ is well-known for a reason; it’s so very true for many different ventures. I’ve seen so many businesses that have shut before they ever should have. It’s a marathon - not a sprint.
The hustle mindset is quite prevalent and terrible for your growth. You hear it everywhere, and it results in so many people wanting immediate results. Everyone is in a rush. They want to be loaded with cash the following year. They want to be rich or have a unicorn company within twelve months. That’s not how it works. Most companies take years and years to truly grow. Take Studiohawk as an example. We made $40,000 in our opening year; now we’re turning over six million. You’re here for a while so enjoy the journey. Ultimately, it’s better to scale safely than to scale stupidly.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes! We’re in the market for a Junior SEO Copywriter.
Currently, this is our only official position but we’re often looking for SEO Specialists, Copywriters, and Digital PR specialists. If you’d like to inquire, you can reach out here.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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