Bruce Clay: “How I Built My SEO Business”

Author: Gab Goldenberg

Bruce, how did you make the transition from being an SEO consultant to an SEO agency?

Photo credit: Jon Hochman of Hochman Internet Marketing Consultants

Bruce Clay

I first got an education:

  • Got a bachelor’s in science and math
  • Next was anĀ  MBA from Pepperdine

Then, I was in the programming business for 20 years. That made me realize, when I was preparing to go into business for myself, that I wanted something software driven.

[At another point in the interview, Bruce clarified that he ran the national US office for one of the world’s largest tech companies, which is how he acquired business management skills.]

I also wanted it to be in the marketing industry, and at a high level.

As to my objective with all this, it was to “work” with a notebook computer and a Corona on a beach.

So I built my own site first, practiced SEO and got ranked. This got me calls.

Demand was greater than supply, so I raised prices. Next, I compensated by bringing in employees.

We first worked out of a large area in my house, and then moved to an office. We now have 6 suites! [Ed: For the US office alone!]

From there, I grew [successfully] because I knew how to set things up. If I was going international, I knew we had to have a local office with local managers, wherever we established an office.

That’s the formula we’ve used to expand to the UK, Australia, Japan and Italy. And our international business is doing well!

The managers of the local offices are motivated at least partly by equity in their local offices. Note that each office is separately incorporated. We licence the Bruce Clay name to the foreign offices.

I also keep an equity interest in each of these foreign branches – they’re not franchises. This was done intentionally, because franchises are a big hassle. There are issues with:

  • Royalties
  • Licensing
  • Requirements for education

Additionally, our existing setup is better for tax purposes than a franchising arrangement would be.

[At this point we digressed into some discussion about Matt wanting to fight international spam more this coming year, and something to do with foreign language blacklists…]

How did you handle hiring employees for Bruce Clay, and what are some of the struggles entrepreneurs have with this?

The hardest bit is delegation.

The best employees:

  • Know the voice of the corporation,
  • Know intuitively what’s right and what’s wrong.
  • Need to share your values and voice so you can trust them.

[Ed: Update: The “what’s wrong” link is link love for Lisa Barone’s piece on Google Profiles. It’s not saying that she was a bad employee or anything like that. Thought I’d clarify for the Tweeple who didn’t catch what I meant on the first go-round.]

That’s how you avoid micromanagement!

You need to watch new hires at first. This is easier for a 1-person shop, where you can hire and wait, because the growth is slow.

For a business like Bruce Clay Inc, it’s a little different. [You don’t have the privilege of waiting and supervising too closely. The way it plays out is as follows:

– School teaches micromanaging, via collective grading.

– Specifically, if you feel your way is the only way, you’re gonna redo everyone else’s work.

– This lowers satisfaction – both yours and the clients.

– Additionally, quality drops and timelines are missed.

As a result, Bruce Clay always hires and trains [from scratch], rather than risk having a blackhat [SEO] inhouse who will revert to bad habits.

Personally, I’ve been thinking of hiring some family to help me grow SEO ROI Services. But I’ve seen the problems this can cause. What tips would you have for such a situation?

The first two employees I hired were my girlfriend and her brother. I quickly had to make some ground rules.

1) At the office, it’s my company. So things are going to be done right. I have the ability to [pen died, Bruce went on and somehow I didn’t fill this in… ??] [guesses: Protect the business? Fire them?]

2) I make employees take the Bruce Clay training – twice!

3) They also have a 6 month period of mentorship [under a more senior employee].

– We’ll bend over to make people work [that is, to help them overcome their initial challenges].

– If you hire right, this isn’t a problem.

What about the financial arrangements involved? What if business is bad for a stretch and I don’t have enough work for them?

Some practical advice I can give on working with family members is to:

  • Hire them first as consultants.
  • Do NOT carry them on your accounting books as employees.
  • Tell them something like:

“I don’t know what business will be like, so I may have ongoing work for you or not.

I’m going to go in X direction – do you have the desire and motivation to go there with me?

~3.5) But be careful if they’re not the right match for the technology and what you want, relative to business considerations.

4) Always deal with them as consultants. Business is about business, not family.

You have to remember: “My ability to be paid is if clients will pay them [the family members].

To do SEO right is important, and get lots of sales.”

5) When dealing with family, you have staff you need to make sure the corporation survives. Since you can’t cut technology, you might need to cut administrative expenses.

5.5) There are different ways to reduce expenses. You can cut salaries and give people a day off. And the two can be mixed, e.g. a 10% pay cut and 1 day off a week to achieve something like a 30% total cut.

My point is that there are different ways to manage expenses.

6) Another tip is to follow news that affects your industry closely. For example, Edmunds has been affected by the auto industry’s issues.

This sort of knowledge can help you forecast how you will be affected and how to adjust finances.

We next discussed some of Bruce’s current and recent projects.

Part of being successful in this business is getting clients to implement. We told one media client to push their website via the print edition, by putting each article’s URL at the end of the printed version. They ignored that and haven’t seen much improvement in their traffic.

By contrast, we did a 96-page assessment for CNN. They wanted to rank #1 for the keyword “News”. Ahead of Google.

They ranked, and that got them 5 times their prior traffic.

CNN ranks on Google for News, and even has Sitelinks on that keyword!

CNN ranks on Google for News, and even has Sitelinks on that keyword!

[I’m not sure if Bruce meant 5 times what they got from ranking lower down for “News” or what their site got in total, prior to that. Both are plausible, considering News has an average 100M monthly searches, per Google’s AdWords Tool.]

We also have the only comprehensive toolset in China. We had to redesign everything to compensate for language issues.

The rate we’re going to charge is $10/month. [For the whole toolset or the toolbar? Is the toolbar included in the toolset? This was a bit confusing TBH.]

The way our toolbar differentiates from Aaron Wall’s is that it’s going to be marketing oriented, and less tech-oriented.

Finally, we’ll be implementing a wide open reporting format called Crystal Reports. [This seemed oriented to agencies who want to whitelabel Bruce Clay’s tool-generated reports.]

Thanks a lot Bruce!

If you enjoyed this interview with internet marketing pioneer Bruce Clay, you should (i) Check out the Bruce Clay blog and (ii) Add my rss feed to your reader!


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  1. Gab, That interview had a lot of meat in it. Your questions didn't take a generic route. They were really specific and I enjoyed Bruce's straightforward, concise answers. Somehow, you can hear this man's drive and zest for success in how he speaks (writes). Really enjoyable. Will add my Sphinn to it.

    Comment by MiriamEllis - May 7, 2009 @ 1:38am
  2. Great post Gabriel. Great to read about the origins of Bruce Clay and how he has built his company and reputation in search engine optimisation. The rankings they obtained for CNN are a credit to the man.

    Comment by Bruce Clay SEO Australia - May 7, 2009 @ 1:53am
  3. Thanks for the interview/article Bruce. It was interesting learning about how you structured the international branches. Good learnings here.

    Comment by Jacqui - - May 7, 2009 @ 3:31am
  4. Much appreciated. The longer you are in this industry the less it becomes about "SEO" and the more it becomes about "business". Hearing the successes and failures of others is invaluable. Thanks.

    Comment by Jon Payne - May 7, 2009 @ 5:29am
  5. I like this post. For me the transition is a hard step to make.

    Comment by Benj Arriola - May 8, 2009 @ 1:41pm
  6. Hi Gab, I really enjoy reading these type of posts. It is inspiring to read about others and learn about their success and words of advice.

    Comment by Bob Potter - May 10, 2009 @ 12:39pm
  7. Could you tell me a little bit more about the options on the Google page in this image ( )? What are the KW Research, AW stats, etc. just beneath the Google search box? How did you get the Stumbleupon stats to show next to each post? Thanks!

    Comment by Bob Potter - May 10, 2009 @ 12:45pm
  8. Thanks a bunch Miriam! Yeah, I've learned from reading others' interviews that "tell us about yourself" and other such stuff gets answers that most people don't care about on a professional level. There's a place for them, but not in published interviews. You can always publish credits and links at the end... Bruce was a great interviewee too, and I was really pleased that he gave me an hour of his time and shared so many insights with me! It was a great experience :D.

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - May 10, 2009 @ 2:05pm
  9. Hey Bob, They're Firefox plugins. The one with keyword research etc is SEO For Firefox, by Aaron Wall. The other is the StumbleUpon toolbar, with the options set to modify Google results. My pleasure :).

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - May 10, 2009 @ 2:07pm
  10. @ Bruce Clay Australia, Jacqui, Jon and Benj - my pleasure, and thanks a bunch for sharing kudos. That's largely what drives me to do this stuff :).

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - May 10, 2009 @ 2:11pm
  11. This is a fantastic post and interview Gabriel! Some great advice from Bruce Clay, especially the parts about hiring family as consultants at first...I would have never considered this!

    Comment by Nick Stamoulis - June 3, 2009 @ 10:58pm
  12. The problem is a serious one, and Bruce seems to have an elegant solution!

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - June 5, 2009 @ 7:03pm
  13. Hi Gabriel, Good interview! I am launching Bruce Clay in India shortly. SO it was good to read about how Bruce started up his own office and also liked the bit about hiring staff. Interesting reading. cheers Siddharth

    Comment by Siddharth - August 1, 2009 @ 1:53am
  14. Hey Siddharth, That's fascinating to hear about Bruce Clay's global reach like that. Best of luck getting started! Cheers Gab

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - August 1, 2009 @ 9:54pm
  15. Hi's Shawn Hill from Longview, Texas and I'd like to compliment you on a great article. Bruce Clay is an early goer no doubt. His work is closely followed by the industry elite. Thanks for all your hard work and contributions Bruce Clay, the Internet is a better place because of it. Keep up the nice work Gabriel!

    Comment by Shawn Hill - September 13, 2009 @ 11:52pm
  16. Hi Shawn, Thanks a bunch for the kind words :). Gab

    Comment by Gabriel Goldenberg - September 14, 2009 @ 7:58pm
  17. Great Post Mr. Gabriel!! Its just straight from heart. A gifted 'SuCcEsS' is not that pleasant then building up on your 'SuCcEsS'. We try to follow your footsteps to achieve our own 'SuCcEsS'. Thanks and Regards, Nikhil

    Comment by Nikhil - July 13, 2010 @ 12:27am

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