How It’s Done #4: Bill Sebald from Greenlane Marketing

Bill Sebald of Greenlane Marketing talks to us about his life as a marketer and agency owner for the 4th episode of How It’s Done.

Bill started practicing SEO in 1996 on a small eCommerce website without a shopping cart or catalog manager of any kind. “It’s amazing to see how web technology has changed”, he notes. He was fascinated with the internet, the wealth of knowledge it contained (even back in 1996), the burgeoning SEO industry, and web design. He’s still just as fascinated more than 20 years later. He’s also a speaker, blogger, teacher, musician and photographer. After offering consultancy services under the name Greenlane since 2005, he launched Greenlane Marketing in 2012.

1. What does your daily routine look like?

My routine changes depending on the day (we have company-wide work from home days on Thursday and Friday – the lack of a commute gives me a few hours of my day back). I’m not an early bird, so an  wakeup time is just fine for me. Before the work day starts, I’ll create a list of tasks I want to get done that day. I’ll work very diligently for eight to nine hours completing the list. I will log back at night if need be. But generally, after  each night, I simply relax or work on my art.

2. What made you start your agency? Tell us about your journey.

I was working in a large digital marketing agency in Philadelphia, and loved the hustle, the variety, and the challenges. I loved the comradery and the competitiveness. I was definitely suited to be an agency man. I think it’s something you might even be born with! After a few years, I started to fantasize about what an agency of my own creation would be like. I thought about how I would fix the things I thought weren’t working at my current job.

Eventually the desire peaked. One day I just decided I was going to take the gamble. I was ambitious, and wanted fast growth, so I thought about the things I wasn’t as strong in. I was working closely with someone I had known for years, and simply realized he had the skills I didn’t have. I asked him to be my partner, which candidly made the whole experience much less daunting. My partner, named Keith Urban, is brilliant and logical, and I was sure the combination of us two could succeed. We didn’t expect it to move so fast.

3. How did you get your first client?

My network. Since I’d been doing SEO for so long, with big brands (through the aforementioned agency), I would often get asked to do side-work. This time when I was asked, I simply said, “so I actually started a company.” The power of networking is enormous.

4. What is the biggest problem that you have faced as an agency owner? How did you overcome it?

I believe the toughest thing was getting a team together (with members who are) accountable to each other, passionate about what they do, and respect the work they do. A dysfunctional agency can be toxic. You have to get the internal and external relationships right. It’s easy to find bodies to do the work, but it’s much harder to find people with the right attitudes. I always think it’s important to hire for skills and talents that aren’t currently in place. I’m a big believer in hiring people that are smarter than you.

5. If you could go back in the past and tell one thing to yourself when you started your agency, what would it be?

I’m wired pretty tight. In the last few years, I’ve done work to be much more stress free. But in the early years, I was allowing myself to be very stressed. So much so that I brought it home every night. In an agency, things move fast. The tasks don’t stop coming down the conveyor belt. Being worried and stressed didn’t help me get the tasks done any faster than being relaxed and anxiety-free. So there really is no point to waste that emotional energy.

6. How did you hire your first employee?

We hired someone we knew from our past agency life. We signed him as a consultant, but soon it became clear that we needed to convert him into an actual employee. Our second employee, Jon Knepper (who is still with us) is a unique story. I posted on Twitter that we were looking for another hire. Jon saw the tweet and sent me a YouTube video, filmed for me, showing his passion and attitude. That went a long way. We didn’t even look at other candidates.

7. What do you look for when acquiring talent for your agency?

Like Jon, attitude means the world to me. You can be amazing at your craft, but a bad attitude is a killer. As I said earlier, an agency is built on teams (and) relationships.

Passion is my second hiring criteria. I don’t know an agency that is a clock-in/clock-out type of job. Typically, the person I want loves agency life; this isn’t necessarily all “work hard, play hard,” but it is a genuine curiosity about the things we do, and a drive to win. The person I want thinks about what we do all the time, because they truly love it.

Accountability is a massive third criteria. I ask interview questions that give me a sense that the person is a team player in every sense of the word. Leave your ego at the door. We have things to get done, together!

When I interview prospective employees, I am candid. I talk about how hard the job can be. I might even make the job sound scary sometimes (while always being truthful). The person who is scared may not be cut out for our team. But the one who shrugs it off without blinking an eye is one that definitely intrigues me.

8. How do you manage things like customer churn and employee retention?

We don’t have a sales team. We don’t lure clients in en masse, and then try to service them like they are all the same. We are quite choosey about who we work with, and we vet the clients pretty well. That helps drive a great honeymoon period, which more often than not, leads to a long marriage.

For employees, I’m sure the two work from home days are a great perk. But we are also wanting to make sure the team feels empowered to make changes. If a few of us are in a room, and I say one thing, the team knows they can challenge it for the purpose of letting the best idea win. I’ve never had a job like that, so Keith and I really pleased to bring that to our team. At the end of the day, the decision makers need to make the right call, but the whole team heavily influences the decisions.

9. What are the tools that your agency uses on a day-to-day basis?

We made some big investments in the best-of-breed tools. We have tons of software subscriptions. Sometimes these are tools we only need once in a while, but if they help us get to the heart of an issue, or help us analyze the opportunities, they’re considered.

10. How did you help your agency scale?

I’m not sure we really do. We didn’t build like some other digital marketing agencies. (Not all clients) get the same things. Every engagement is customized to them. Granted, we can scale some internal process (like onboarding or parts of business development), but when it comes to client work, the customized approach actually helps us hit goals and keep the relationships for years.

11. You’ve gotten so many speaking opps in the past – how do you prepare for them, generally?

I think of the story I want to tell. Then I storyboard it out, not unlike a movie. PowerPoint or Google Slides are the perfect vehicle for this. The last thing is peppering in some humor, because I like to feel the energy of the room. I try to only talk about things I’m passionate in so the audience can watch me light up naturally. I remember my math teachers didn’t exactly light up when they talked about equations, but my music teacher sure did when talking about melody. I definitely enjoy learning from someone who is passionate about their subject, so I assume that’s the same for the audience who comes to see me.

12. Top 5 marketing books that have helped you get where you are now?

  1. The Immutable Laws of Marketing
  2. Flawless Consulting
  3. Guerilla Marketing (this book matched quite well with SEO)
  4. Marketing Lessons from the Grateful Dead: What Every Business Can Learn from the Most Iconic Band in History
  5. I really can’t think of a fifth book. I’ve read some good ones, but I would say I’ve been more inspired by blog posts. Sometimes by people nobody has heard of. Sometimes the best content is hidden in the web.

13. Something on a lighter note – top 5 songs from your work playlist?

My Spotify playlist rolls 3k songs deep. It’s all over the place, from Frank Zappa to Motley Crue to Lukas Nelson to Phish to JJ Cale to The Mountain Goats to… well, see for yourself!

Featured Image Photo credit: Onasill ~ Bill Badzo on / CC BY-NC-SA

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