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How I built a $25k/month SEO agency that I can run from anywhere

  • Leslie Gilmour

  • From Dublin, Ireland
  • Managing Director at Cube Digital

  • Business Model: Agency
  • $25,000monthly revenue
  • $10,000monthly profit
  • All info self-reported by interviewee
  • Published March 31, 2020
  • Reviewed and edited by Rita Epps

Who are you and how do you make money online?

Like many who have worked in the online marketing industry for as long as me, this was an accidental career.

While at university I built a website about Camino hiking routes back in 2006. It got no traffic and that just annoyed me. So, I started learning how to get traffic from Google.

I was studying English Literature and Philosophy and had no real idea of what I would do when I was finished. Learning SEO solved that problem as I was obsessed with and loved SEO from day one.

Within a year of leaving Uni, I was working as an SEO consultant for a web design company. Less than 18 months later I started my own consulting business.

Cube Digital runs SEO campaigns for small businesses in the UK, the US, and Ireland.

We look after all onsite optimization and content writing, but our main focus is link building. Building links has become our main focus as we now provide this service to other agencies.

The profit of the company is around 40% of the total turnover of $25,000.

However, a few months ago I decided to invest all profits back into building affiliate websites. I had already been running one reasonable affiliate site and understand the potential.

💻 Editor’s note: see our full list of ways to make money online.

What does a typical workday look like for you?

I am awake around 6am, easily, given that I have a five-year-old who is up at that time.

I walk to my office which takes around 50 minutes and aim to arrive around 8am.

Between 8am and noon is the time I use for focused work.

However, this usually only works well on Tue, Wed, and Thur, as Monday morning I check with everyone that they are clear on the work for the week, and Friday morning I do accounts and payments.

Working online is great.

I currently live in Prague and we plan to move in the near future as I can work online from anywhere (assuming the time zones are not an issue).

I do work fairly traditional hours due to having a family.

There are problems that need to be addressed when you run a business that needs you to be online. My focus and concentration have been eroded over the years and now I am working to cut distractions as much as possible.

I highly recommend the book Deep Work by Cal Newport and his blog.

It is easy for me to take time off during the day.

I do not think that I work a lot of hours – perhaps around 40 per week right now.

I notice that on many days I could leave at 3pm as after lunch my productivity on real work is very low. 

Afternoons are a good time for emails. (I have come to hate email, which is really funny because as a company we send out 10,000+ emails a month…).

On a morning walk to the office.

What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea for your business?

As I already mentioned, I started this online gig a long time ago.

When I first discovered that I could write and publish blog posts and make money via ads or affiliate, I thought I had discovered the exact use for an English Literature degree.

It has always been delightful to have money just drop into my account every month without me having to go to work somewhere.

Related: 20+ Affiliate Marketing Website Examples

However, I needed to make more money than I was earning from my websites.

I built an ugly looking website (not on purpose, I just wasn’t very good at building websites), and I started offering my services. 

My first “client” was a web design company and I worked for them as a contractor for a year or so while building up my own base of clients.

The biggest problem in 2008/2009 was that small businesses lacked understanding and knowledge of SEO, and so much of my work was educational.

In 2010 I was offered a contractor role by a sportsbook and I became their in-house SEO for the next 5 years. It was great having bigger budgets to work with and a roller coaster going through the many Google updates especially Panda and Penguin.

In 2015 the company lost its ability to bring on new players and shut down all marketing. After that experience, I decided to set up my own agency.

How did you prepare to launch the business?

I was already fairly good at on-site SEO and had good link building skills, so building my own agency was a natural progression.

Also, I wanted to build a business that wasn’t completely dependant on one client and could earn profit without me being there all the time – the last part is still a work in progress.

I learned SEO first by building my own websites, then working on some client sites and then having a large site to optimize.

I knew I needed some visibility and clients quickly. I built a better-looking website this time and ranked it for vanity keywords: SEO agency. But, most of the work came from me reaching out to past clients and other people in the industry.

How much money did you have to spend to get started?

One of the biggest problems in many service industries and for SEO is that the cost of entry is just a website. That’s it.

I believe this is why referrals and client testimonials are so important. Anyone can say they can do it and not deliver the promised results.

Talk us through your first few months (or first year) in business.

During the first year, I charged very low prices and took any work. Both of these were a mistake.

I got tied into not paying the right price for my own outsourcers and believing everything was too expensive.

Charging low prices meant I was busy – too busy – but there was not enough money to really market my own business.

I worked too many hours and work was never out of my head. I did not rest and recharge. My computer went on holidays with me – it was tough.

It took a long time of crazy hours and charging lower than was best for me or my business before I did something about it. At the start of 2019, I started working with a coach, Kirsty Hulse.

Having a coach has turned my life and business around.

I was always fairly good at SEO, I just didn’t think I was good at running a business. Before working with my coach I was ignorant of the many things inside me that were holding me back. 

In most cases, the root problem was fear, fear of losing clients, fear of being poor, fear of upsetting people – I cringe writing this.

For example, I would do a lot of unpaid work to satisfy clients just not to lose them.

I mistakenly believed if I charged the right amount I would lose ALL my clients and my business would implode.

Madness, but that is where I was.

I started charging a much higher price. Mostly it was fine, I only lost one large client.

That was a great experience. I discovered that I was fine and my business continued to grow, nothing imploded and I felt better about myself.

How did you make your first $100 online?

I made my first $100 online with AdSense (ads on my website). I still make a reasonable amount from ads but using different and better ad networks like AdThrive.

With client work, in 2015 I had one large long term client. That really helped during the first two years while I was bringing on more business.

At this moment we are now at capacity for the four of us.

How does the business make money today?

The business makes most of its money from small business SEO services, mostly link building.

Right now, only 3 to 4 new clients come on board each year from my website.

The majority of new business is coming from referrals.

Most people who run a business socialize with other business owners – this is always worth bearing in mind.

However, I also aim to rank my own business site. We’ve just launched a new website that is targeting specific sectors where we have had great growth for clients. There are plans for advertising and appearing in publications that this market refers to.

During the last few months, we worked a lot on our process documentation. Not having all process docs in place has been a barrier to hiring lately. I do not want to have all the decisions in the business to go through me.

What are some of the challenges particular to this kind of online business?

The biggest challenge in SEO, after getting results, is having all processes in place.

Hiring and scaling the business becomes messy and overwhelming for me without these.

It has also become clear to me that a low-revenue client takes as much of my time as a high-revenue client – sometimes they take more!

With that in mind, agreeing on the scope of work has become important. I am no longer willing to work without getting paid.

One other problem that has surfaced is the obvious reduction in profit the more staff are in the business. (Hence the big push into affiliate websites.)

If you were starting the same business today, from scratch, how would you do it?

I am fairly sure that with my current knowledge I would not start an SEO agency again. I would consider two different options:

  • Is there another type of business I can get into where my SEO skills would give me a large advantage?
  • I would be more inclined to start a paid advertising business. It has always been easy with paid media clients to transfer part of the budget to SEO.

Failing either of the above and I was starting from scratch, I would niche down and choose a market to provide services to and become an expert in that market.

Many tasks are much easier when you have 2 or 3 SAAS companies, or travel companies, or accountants – you get the idea. The problems that they experience are similar, link building is easier as you already have the relationships, content production and ideas are easier because you know the market and what drives results.

What books, podcasts, courses or other resources would you recommend to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps?

My favorite books that have had the most impact are:

I only listen to two podcasts (time is an issue):

Honestly, I don’t have much time for training courses and find most of them targeting lower-level information than I need.

I have only bought one training course for myself, The Authority Site System.

Editor’s note: see our in-depth review of The Authority Site System, including discount info and how it compares to similar courses.

One of the most valuable $99 dollars I spend each month is for Traffic Think Tank. This is a private SEO community and worth every cent.

It is incredibly helpful to be part of a community where there are many other SEO agency owners and affiliate marketers.

📚 Editor’s note: see our ultimate list of the best books for online entrepreneurs.

What are your top 5 business tools?

My favorite business tools are:

Outside of these, I like my Mac, I use a Pomodoro app, Zoom is great for calls, and I nearly forgot about Ahrefs which is our default research tool.

Where can we go to learn more?

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