I realised when Screaming Frog told me today that I need a new license that Puglet Digital has been running for a year. It has been my job for a year. I’ve been living off my own business for a year. Once the shock of that wore off (and I got SF renewed, because let’s face it you won’t get far as an SEO without that in your toolbox!) I figured it was worth taking a little time out to just sit and review what I’ve learned in the first twelve months of being in business for myself.
People Are Everything
While I may have been in business for myself rather than a conventional employer, I would never say that I’ve been in business by myself. The network of people that has come to life around me to support, advise, refer and engage has left me openly gobsmacked more than once. From fellow agency-side startups like Prospect Knight and Become Rebel to more established services, former employers, former colleagues and even former clients, I’ve barely been able to raise a hand before someone pops in to offer something valuable.
Value from people is an immense thing in the self employment game, especially when flying (theoretically) solo. From a cuppa and a chat, to advice over lunch, offers to hot desk, client referrals, joint pitches, or even just a quick phone call to “check in in the journey,” never at any point have I ever felt like I was really going this alone. I’m insanely lucky and fortunate to have such an empowering, trusted and kind network of people around me. I remind myself of that at as often as I can, and I do my best to pay it both back and forward.
The amazing network has also meant that every single piece of work done to date by Puglet Digital has been as the result of a referral. In many cases these referrals have been made by clients, either past or present, or individuals who were client contacts who have moved on to new positions. Since I’m essentially a consultant, this for me is the highest form of praise – and flattery! I don’t take or offer kickbacks for referrals, either, although I make them frequently as part of strategic advice. If a client gets someone referred by me – or indeed is referred to me by someone else – I want them to be confident that it is a genuine vote of confidence, not something backed by mere monetary incentive.
Is that “bad business” in a purist sense? Maybe I could bank more if I did accept kickbacks from the people I refer to regularly because I know and trust that they’ll do a damned good job for a client. But I prefer being able to be open and above board. Trust is worth more than any volume of referral fees!
Of course it is a damned good thing that I know such lovely people, client-side and otherwise, who are so happy to refer me to their friends and colleagues and peers, because…
Consultant Marketing Is A Pain
In the past I’ve always worked for agencies who generally have either dedicated business development staff or at the very least some way to earmark time for agency marketing activity. Now, however, I find myself struggling to find the time to even pop a blog up now and then, let alone do things like fill up the Buffer queue for Puglet’s social channels or do any real engagement/outreach on LinkedIn groups or at events. It’s become something of a running joke in its own right, in fact!
At least pugs are easy as brand choices go. The original “hard brand guideline” I came up with to only use photos of the girls of course has gone completely out of the window, though. They aren’t terribly good at posing. Come on ladies, let’s see something dynamic and exciting to illustrate a post about this major change in the Google SERPs…
Interestingly this comes up in conversation now and then (not as often as I would have expected, though) along the lines of “if you’re so good at this why don’t you rank #1 for SEO consultant” or some other key phrase du jour. The answer is I don’t have bloody time, because I’m too busy helping client businesses grow. If I have a spare couple of hours or a spare bit of runoff budget sure, I could get some specialists in PR and/or link acquisition in, or I could hire a content/social freelancer to help with that side of things, but I’d rather just slap out a quick rant (like this one), do some more reading/experimentation to grow the skillsets I use to help clients, and/or put the excess budget to use in something more fun. Which leads nicely on to:
Donating Is Awesome
My accountant is doubtless going to have something to say about this when tax return time rocks around, but I think I may have become mildly addicted to corporate donations. As a private individual I don’t have anything like the breathing room in my bank account to donate in any really exciting way to causes that I care about, but Puglet Digital has more capital volume so as long as I keep a sensible budgetary runway for the business (cos fiscal solvency may be boring but I still have a mortgage to pay) I can have some fun with it.
Puglet sponsors both PDWRA and Muffin Pugs, which are pug-focused UK charities dedicated to welfare, rescues, rehoming and fostering, with monthly donations. Kind of a given fit, really. I’m also finally able to offer some beefy support to the Aspinall Foundation, who are sort of my pet non profit (despite being about wildlife…hur hur hur) as Howlett’s Wild Animal Park is super nearby; hubby and I are gold ticket holders and very regular visitors. When they needed a new laptop for the Madagascar conservation programme and were trying to crowdsource, I was able to donate the full amount because of a project that had just finished. Nobody wants to donate a rugged outdoorsy-capable laptop to a wildlife programme, apparently; it isn’t considered very “sexy.” Bloody hard to run a conservation project without anywhere to keep track of the data though.
The same happened, again for Aspinall, when they were trying to get some new gazebos for their outdoor promotional activity. No big corporate sponsor is going to care about buying boring gazebos for fundraisers. You can’t get a cool CSR blog post out of that, can you? Well I don’t care. Call me the unsexy donations lady.
(I do have assurances from reliable sources that the gazebos will see real use and not just be put up to provide shade to statuary at the parks, incidentally)!
Of course the more growth-focused who’ve made it this far in my rambling will probably be squinting at this point, but that brings me on to probably the biggest lesson I’ve had to learn since leaning into Puglet full time…
You Determine Your Measures Of Success
Several times I’ve been asked when I’m going to hire. “Surely you have enough of a revenue stream now to take on an employee.” When I got my little office in Canterbury, which sees very worthy secondary usage as a tabletop roleplaying space on weekends, it got positively pressuring. “Why in god’s name aren’t you hiring? How else will you grow?”
I think this is a compliment of sorts, that clients and peers/friends alike see the approach Puglet takes to organic marketing and like it so much that they want to see more of it. People apparently want to see this little one-woman, two-pug band expand into some big ten, twenty, hundred person agency of some sort. Which is lovely, really, it is.
Only…I have absolutely no desire to do any such thing! I definitely don’t want to hire juniors and turn into being a manager who never gets to actually do any of the client work any more (I did my time in a past agency life as a Head of SEO and it was horrible, which is why I stepped down and went back to a consulting role). I’ve toyed with the idea of finding a partner, someone on equal footing to share the business with/handle things when I want to take time off, but in honesty even that lacks a lot of the appeal of operating as a solo consultant.
Right now, I’m beholden only to my own cashflow and my own choices. If I don’t like the sound of a project/client, or I think my approach and services aren’t the right thing for a business to invest in at the time (or indeed ever) I’m 100% free to say so and encourage them to look for what will offer them greater opportunities instead. I’ve actually had several prospects, who I turned down because I didn’t think organic was the right channel subset for their stage of growth, both come back later on (“Can we work with you yet?”) and, amazingly, refer others on to me because I don’t fib for a quick buck. I managed to talk a rather major sports retailer out of hiring an SEO agency altogether because they didn’t need a bloody retainer and had all the skills the site could ask for in-house already. That was a great personal win for me, even if I didn’t make a penny out of it. Screw you, Big Media Agency Machine. Take your fat, overloaded budgets and stop flogging your one-expensive-retainer-size-fits-all to modern, skilled and agile brands that don’t need it.
Now this approach means I have to turn down work – supposedly the #1 Never Ever Ever – when I’m at capacity, but (at least thus far) I’ve found that being strict and honest with my resource and ability to join a project has raised more interest and engagement from prospective clients, not less. I’m free to work when I want, how I want. I can decide to grab an early train to London and hop between coffee shops in between meeting people, or I can work with the pugs for company at my office or at home on the couch, if it is raining and going outside looks like a duff idea. I can invite people to hot desk at my office with the pugs, or go to the coast in the middle of the day to meet my husband for lunch. It’s the life, y’all. Not going to lie, I’m loving it.
So in that case, what does success look like for Puglet, for year two and beyond? Well, at some point I may decide to expand and change trajectory – never say never and all that, and who knows what the future holds – but for now, for me, success looks like making a decent living, having fun, making a real difference to clients and their businesses, and getting to do so with my pugs on my lap, my feet or otherwise nearby.
To everyone who has helped me so immeasurably much on this journey so far – clients, friends, and partners – from the one-offs to the ongoing relationships, from the bottom of my pug-infested heart, thank you. And to all those yet to come: come in, pull up a chair, grab a pug, and definitely don’t wear anything you don’t want dog hair on.