Wil Reynolds is one of our favourite guys in digital marketing. He is the always inspiring, always motivating, relentless challenger of the digital marketing status quo.
And he does all this by working with clients to make them better businesses promoting their (and I’m going to borrow his own term here) Real Company Shit. He is Seer Interactive’s Director of Digital Strategy, helping many Fortune 500 companies with their strategies since 1999.
I recently sat down with Wil to chat about his journey with SEER, his visions for SEO and digital marketing, what drives him to succeed in work and business, as well as his mission to humanise and bring empathy to SEO.
Woj: Thanks for spending some time with me today, Wil. Appreciate it.
Wil: My pleasure.
What’s been your most interesting travel experience and what did you learn personally?
Wil: My honeymoon. I went to Vietnam for part of my trip with my wife. As an American going into Vietnam, I went down with a little bit of shame. We had done some stuff there that is hard to live with. I didn’t do it, but our country did and I represent our country.
When I was there, I happened to mention that to one of the folks that was there and he was like, “That wasn’t you.” He’s like, “I just can’t believe that you’ve come here for your honeymoon. I think that’s amazing.” When he said that, it reminded me of forgiveness and given the things that were done in that country, people would have every right to look at us weird or kind of have something to say or whatever and I was reminded how quickly generations can be forgiving. That’s probably the thing, in all the travels that I’ve had, that I’ve taken away with me the most is that.
Woj: Do you also think personal forgiveness is important?
Wil: I’m not a very forgiving person myself.
Woj: Why do you think that is?
Wil: Because I always have to be moving something forward and I always look for the things that could be improved. And I think when you’re wired that way, as much as it can drive you to do things that are good and positive, you also don’t ever give yourself a break.
I think it’s important to learn to forgive yourself or to allow – what I’m calling lately – allow some things to burn because you can’t be the person to fix everything.
Woj: And you can’t do everything. You can’t be everywhere.
Wil: You can’t. So I’m learning that lesson slowly.
Woj: Perfectionism’s bullshit.
Wil: Oh, it’s complete bullshit. I’m not a perfectionist by any stretch, but I am kind of addicted to improvement.
Woj: Yeah, from what I’ve read as well, you seem pretty humble. You consider yourself the average guy.
Wil: Well, I am the average guy to me. My dad grew up really poor, my mom grew up okay and I grew up alright. But I think there’s no value in patting yourself on the back. Patting yourself on the back has never made anybody any better. Trying to build up your personal brand – I know that’s a big thing in this space. That’s why my Twitter handle says, “I am whatever you say I am.” I took that from Eminem.
I used to fight against people calling me a guru or an expert or inspirational. I think that the minute you start to believe that about yourself, no good can come of that. Best case scenario you go, “Okay, that’s cool.” Worst case scenario you start believing even 10 or 20% of it and then you thinking you inspire other people.
Woj: Let’s go back to the beginning…
What did you do on the first day that you got the Internet?
Wil: So the first time I got Internet… I got Prodigy, which wasn’t even really the Internet. It was the coolest.
Woj: Is that like a BBS?
Wil: Yeah, kind of, but it had graphics that weren’t… it was better than BBS. There was something about me connecting with people in other places. I went right into the rap forum and people were like, “Rap’s not real music,” and I’m like, “Yeah, it is.” We’re fighting about what real music is on a freaking bulletin board. And then getting sports scores and checking the weather, I just thought that was amazing. I don’t know what it is but something fascinated me about the Internet from the earliest stages.
Then once I graduated out of that, because I was probably about 11 or 12 when I had that – so it was 28 years ago, I graduated into BBSs. I went through the whole progression. Got a 2400, 48, a 96, a 144, a 382, 384.
Woj: Did you play any MUDs?
Wil: No, not many. I just was a warez guy, so I was constantly dialling up bulletin boards and dialling up software and stuff like that.
Woj: That was pretty much what I did.
Wil: Once I got to university, they had high speed Internet, which was nuts. But all that dial up time was big. The thing that sucked was that my phone bill got pretty high. My parents were like, “What are you doing? What’s our 15-year-old son doing with this phone line running up these bills calling Chicago?”
I’m like, “Mom, I’m not really calling Chicago. I’m trying to download Leisure Suit Larry,” or whatever. Yeah, that was my early experience in the Internet.
Woj: Yeah. What kind of rap inspired you early on?
Wil: I listen to a lot of different types of music, so my first two CDs I ever got were Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume I and II and LL Cool J’s “Mama Said Knock You Out”. So I always was into a lot of different types of music. For me, a lot of stuff gets me in the zone.
Early rap wasn’t overly inspirational to me. I think the kind of rap I gravitated towards was early Kanye. I thought a guy talking about loving him mama was really cool. Yes, I liked Party & Bullshit by Biggie and all that but that was different. Early Kanye had a very interesting message behind it so I’ve always kind of liked Kanye, Common, guys like that.
New Kanye’s a little different though. New Kanye’s way different than “I’m trying to hustle and make it” Kanye. I think he’s a great example of somebody who’s believed the hype around that and now you look at him, you’re like, “Oh, you want to hear what you have to say,” and it’s a shame because just a few years ago I was hanging on everything the guy did. I thought he was a really creative guy, passionate guy doing great shit and then he ends up going off the deep end.
Woj: Yeah, right? And now he’s a Kardashian.
Wil: Yeah, right, now he’s a Kardashian. Seriously. Oh my god.
How would you describe how you got to where you are today and how did your experience working for a startup help you grow SEER?
Wil: I felt the pain. I used to sleep on the sofa at my first startup. I’m glad I did. Everybody today talks about work-life balance – and that’s a great thing – but I’m glad that at 21, 22 I put in that kind of time because it leapfrogged my career.
There’s no substitute for time. I was in twice the amount of meetings as people my age because I was spending twice the amount of time working on my career, and I got more exposure than they did faster.
So even though that time was very hard for me, I got dumped by my girlfriend because I was working too much and what not, I don’t look back at that time with regret. It was a rite of passage. It was part of what it is.
Woj: You put in the time and hustled.
Wil: Right. I did all that, so hopefully I wouldn’t have to work that hard now, and I don’t. But having poured your heart and soul into a company like I did and have it go under, not because we weren’t smart… let me give you the quick story.
I was employee number one at Net Marketing and one of our biggest competitors at the time was a company called Avenue A. They went on to buy Razorfish. Avenue A and Razorfish got bought by somebody at aQuantive who got bought by Microsoft for $6 billion. So that company’s first employee who we used to go head to head with today is worth probably $75-80 million.
When I got let go at Net Marketing, I was employee number one and all I got was a laptop and a letter of recommendation because that’s all they could give me. I saw the pain in my boss’s eyes. They knew how hard I worked for them and that’s all they could give me.
I said I never want to put myself in that position where I would have to do that to somebody on my team because I don’t know how to run a business.
So for me, that experience led me to saying, “I’m not good at running a business. Let me not hold onto that for too long because I could put myself in the same position that I was once put in.” You’re a good company, know what you’re doing, know the industry. But if you don’t know how to run a business, it doesn’t matter how good you are at your work, it won’t save you forever. And it saved us for a long time.
SEER made a lot of bad decisions early on. When I hired my first finance guy, he was like, “You know how much you’re spending on Red Bull this year?” I’m like, “No.” Because it was like, hey, if you want everyone to drink, I’ll buy it, stock it in the fridge. We had the money to do that so it wasn’t a big deal. He’s like, “You spent $5,000 this year on Red Bull and we’re only five months through the year.
That was the kind of stupid shit that was happening at SEER that I didn’t even know. Luckily that was around the time I started putting people around me to help me with the business, so they were finding all the mistakes that I had been making, because revenue saved our ass for years. But at some point it can’t.
Woj: You said you bootstrapped, so you didn’t get any VC funding?
Wil: No, not even a loan, man. I didn’t even run up my credit cards. There’s a lack of stress as a result. Maybe SEER could have grown faster or done some more things bigger, but I’m glad that I don’t have a lot of stress. I’m glad I don’t have loans. I’m glad I don’t owe people any money, and I’m glad that I can wake up tomorrow and say, “SEER’s going to do this,”. I have an advisory board people who I go to when I want to make big decisions, but I’m glad I don’t have anybody telling me no.
Woj: You’ve talked about being an accidental CEO. How common is this? I feel like it’s happening to me. No one gave us a playbook, right?
Wil: When I talk about being an accidental CEO, the way that I mean it is I didn’t want to build a business. It’s so cliche now. Everybody wants to start a business, work in a startup, blah, blah, blah. I was trying to take what I love to do and find a company to let me do it for them. I didn’t want to start this business. And I spent two years using up all my vacation days to go to these companies, knock on their doors and say, “I want to work here.”
After all that time when no one would hire me, I kind of felt like I didn’t have a choice but to start a business, which is why I feel accidental in my entrepreneurial path. But that’s what that kind of means, at least for me.
I think we all had interesting paths on how we came to what we’ve come to, but for me, I definitely realized that my path was different to a lot of people who are smart at business and could see market opportunities and underserved markets. I didn’t see any of that. I just saw work I liked to do, no one would hire me and then I eventually went, “Mom, I think I’m going to have to start my own thing.” And that’s kind of how it happened.
Woj: I think a lot of successful businesses don’t set out to build a company, they just do what they love and they just grind. They push over walls and keep hustling.
Wil: Yeah. I think it’s hard. It’s hard to meet somebody who loves what they do. Long term, it’s hard to meet somebody who loves what they do because they’ll stay on the treadmill longer than you will because they love being on the treadmill. You’re kind of like, “Ooh, I’m still on the treadmill but you know what? I’ve got to start charging you for this extra time.” Whereas I just loved the shit so I would lose track of time, I would help clients, I’d go twice over the hours and like, “Don’t worry about it.” You know?
I think it’s those things that have built SEER to have a very strong referral network. Then you can’t put a price on the value of a great brand that gets referrals and doesn’t have to work really hard to get business. So I’ve always kind of just poured my heart into the business and helping people out and see what comes from that. So far it’s been good stuff.
Woj: Nice. It’s working, man.
What are 3 tips you can give fledgling CEOs, entrepreneurs, that you wish were given to you before you began?
Wil: First of all, revenue solves all problems. It’s funny, man. I did not know how to run a business, but I know how to get new business. And not in a way other than just to be me and try to help people, but that leads to a lot of freaking referrals.
I think people overvalue getting their finances straight and undervalue just helping people solve their problems. So I’ve always placed my focus on that.
Another thing is, this is basic shit, but keep your expenses small. I had shitty offices. I worked out of my house. I had cheap ass cards. Those things don’t get you new clients. They don’t. I think that people over-invest in shit like that.
Another thing would I say to someone if they were in a place where they were kind of hurting a bit is just because you’re good at your job doesn’t mean that you know how to sell your service. That’s something that I had to get a sales coach to help me with. I was watching really bad SEO companies outselling me.
Woj: And you were trying to copy them?
Wil: No, I was just like, “Wait!” I’m watching somebody that really doesn’t know SEO. I would see a company that was formed in the last year and their CEO was a club promoter up until two years ago. But yet that CEO was selling clients better than I was. I was saying something’s at play that I’m doing wrong because I know infinitely more than them about search but they’re selling more than me.
So just because you know how to do what you do, it does not mean that you know how to sell it. I think that’s another important lesson that I learned. So I had to get a coach to help me with that.
Those are probably the things that I would start off with, that I would impart with somebody from my experience.
Woj: Cool. I’ll take those. So here’s something you said a couple years ago. “When you’re CEO, everyone brings you their bad day and it’s your job to deal with those bad days.” Sort of the bigger your company the more you’re dealing with everybody’s bad day.
So how do you deal with that as a person as well as a leader? What personal toll does it take?
Wil: It takes a big toll. I think there’s a part of running a business that people just don’t see. And that quote came from Will Critchlow. He said that to me and I’ve adopted it since because he’s right. People have one bad day a month and as a manager, you need to know that that’s what you’re stepping into. If you have a team of 10 and they have one bad day a month, that means every third day you have a bad day.
There’s a lot of good but I think that you’ve got to know what you’re signing up for. Shit rolls uphill to you as the manager, and the best managers don’t roll shit uphill to their managers. I find that my best managers are the ones that know how to handle a problem without bringing it to me to solve. Instead they come to me and go, “Here’s what my plans are. Here’s what I’m going to do. If you disagree, let me know.” I love that kind of manager.
Woj: Yeah. At the end of the day, you’re also a role model and it does affect company culture. When I spoke to Larry Kim, he said that even what you’re wearing can change perception.
Wil: Constantly under the microscope. Your team is looking at how you’re reacting to things all the time almost exclusively because they are taking clues from that. So unfortunately I think, significant others have to hear a lot of shit when people get home. Husbands have to hear a lot from their wives or wives from their husbands because you almost have it so bottled up and it would be inappropriate to say these things or it wouldn’t be right to say these things sometimes so you don’t say them because you just can’t, which is why it’s nice to grow a leadership team.
I’ve got people at SEER who I can say, “I’m going to give this to you super raw. You’re going to get it unfiltered. I might sound a little bit tough but I’m going to give it to you that way and then we can work on that on how to make something positive of it.”
But you’re going to have very few people in your company who you can have that with because there is it’s very easy to quickly become – if the boss is in a bad mood or whatever – like, “Well, do you think the company’s going under?” It’s like, “No, I just ran a red light and almost hit somebody.”
The team will think the worst and I think the best example I can give is of one of my coworkers, Tricia. She doesn’t work at SEER anymore. But I called her on her one-year anniversary. She shares a one-year anniversary with a guy named Than. I saw Than that morning and said, “Happy anniversary. Glad you’ve been with us for a year.” Then Tricia I forgot to catch her that morning to say, “Thanks for working with us.”
So I emailed her at 6:00 at night. I was like, “Hey, can you call me real quick?” Then she was like, “Is everything okay?” I’m like, “Yeah, everything’s all right.” She’s like, “Oh, okay.” Then she calls me and she’s like, “Oh my god, I thought I was being fired or something.” I’m like, “I’m calling you to say thank you for working here. You’ve been doing a great job. I met with you three or four times throughout this year telling you I love the work you’re doing and how can we work on more stuff together.”
And that taught me something.
People are taking clues from you and you’re scary. That’s the nature of being a manager.
People know that you have more influence over whether or not they work there than they do on you. I think as a manager you’ve got to remember that. Remember that you’ve got a little bit more influence there than they do and take that into account. It’s just better that way.
Woj: Do you feel like that’s made you more empathetic?
Wil: Oh my god, yes. If I can learn how to stop being pissed off about something for a second and actually stop and go, “Well, maybe something’s going on in their lives.” There’s a psychological study that was done where they showed a guy driving through traffic, cutting people off and swerving around. They asked what they thought. They said, “Oh, the guy was an asshole. He’s a prick.” Then they showed the same video but before that video they showed him getting a phone call from his wife saying that they might lose the baby or something. Then they showed the video and everyone went, “Oh my god, I hope things worked out. I hope they were okay.”
That study just went to show that the context matters, there’s more going on than just the stimulus. And I try really hard to remember that. I’m not good at it. I wish I was better. I think that sometimes my approach, my style can be almost sometimes like, “Who’s at fault here? What’s wrong?” I wish that was something that I was a little bit better at. But I’m cognizant of it, which makes it easier for me to start working on it.
Woj: Exactly. We’re all on a journey of discovery and improvement, I think. That’s cool.
So you and Rand both stepped down from your CEO positions within six months of your swap. How did the CEO swap with Rand help lead to that decision?
Wil: I got to see what it was like running a big company and I was like, “I do not want to do that.” So running mods is what I did. It was 160 people or so. For that weekend I was like, “Don’t want that.” I could tell that to get good at running a business, I would have to stop trying to get good at the marketing things that I do and I find more joy in that.
Woj: So it would have been completely hands off and it would have been just people management, operations and revenue and just all the boring shit, really.
Wil: It’s boring to me. The beauty is that I have found other people at SEER who have joined my leadership team who love that part of the business. I’m like, “That’s awesome, because I can go do what I do free and clear knowing that you’re going to give me the updates on how the business is doing financially. Let’s play to each other’s strengths.”
Woj: Was that the most important take away that you gained from the CEO swap?
Wil: That’s the big one, man. I knew that running a larger company as the person that made the operational decisions was not going to be the thing for me. That was it.
What books outside of marketing have been the most influential in your life and actually what was it that stood out about each?
Wil: Oh my god, you know what? It’s funny. I don’t know if I read books that aren’t about business or marketing. I don’t read for pleasure. Because marketing is pleasure to me. So getting better at my craft and my skill is just fun. So as a result, I don’t really read many books to get out of that mindset.
There’s a couple that I’ve read, like “The Billionaire Who Wasn’t“. Great book.
Woj: That’s Rand’s favorite book as well.
Wil: Yeah, Rand recommended it to me. I’m like, “That was a good book.” But it kind of helped me to reconfirm my current ethos about trying to do the right thing and have an impact on society. But I think most of the books that I read are either about marketing or psychology. So if I read “Switch” or “Nudge” or “Predictably Irrational“, those kind of books are all, they might not be marketing books but it really does help you as a marketer to understand and empathize better with people having to make decisions.
Woj: Yeah, that’s important.
Wil: Super important. Otherwise you’re working off of metrics like clicks instead of looking at people.
Who inspires you at the moment?
Wil: No one. I try not to get too enamored with any person because I realize that we’re all just human beings. We all put our pants on the same way. We all have struggles.
But there are a few people who I do look up to because I admire what they’ve done in their organizations. It’s cliche but I love Sheryl Sandberg. I just like her message. I don’t know what it is. I like her.
Woj: Everyone should lean in.
Wil: Yeah, right? I want to get her to speak at SEER at some point. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to do that but it is one of my life goals to figure out a way to get Sheryl Sandberg to speak at SEER.
Woj: Nice. At least you put it out into the world.
Wil: I just always respected also Richard Branson. I like the way he does things, like the way he runs his businesses. I’ve had the fortune of staying at a couple of Richard Branson’s places, the whole vacation, business thing. And the brand is so good and strong. I admire that about him because whenever I’ve experienced the Virgin brand in anything. So I’ve taken the flights, I’ve gone to Kenya or whatever and stayed at their safari or Marrakesh. I’m like, “Wow, that’s a consistent experience.”
Somewhere deep down I would want the company that I run or that I’m a part of to be able to have such a strong belief in great people, impact and whatnot that we can be that consistent.
That’s really hard to get. It’s hard to get there because every person’s different and how they react to a customer or a client is different. But, man, that would be a really proud moment for me, to be able to build a company or a set of companies where no matter what you did, if you were making leather bags, doing your SEO or building airplanes, you just knew that if you did that, that it would be at a certain level. That would be cool.
To me it’s just like it means that your brand has such a high bar for quality and excellence, taking care of the customer that you could almost go into any area and go, “With that, we’ll be able to be disruptive for most people that are already in that area.”
Woj: As we’ve already said before, it’s all about reputation. But also you want to be synonymous, you want to be that adjective as well. You want to Uber something, you want to Google something. You want to SEER something. When you’ve hit that mark, I think that’s where you’re in that level.
Wasn’t there also a time you spent at one of Richard Branson’s resorts with a whole bunch of non-SEOs?
Wil: Ah, yeah. That’s a different thing.
Woj: Okay. From that experience, what did you learn the most from spending time with non-SEOs?
Wil: That we as SEOs have really done a lot to damage other people’s lives’ work.
Woj: Right. How so?
Wil: When you’re an artist, and that’s what people who build websites are: they believe – and I believe – that what they do is art.
When you go into someone’s craft and their life’s work and you say, “Well, move this around for Google – not for people – for Google. Get more rankings,” you’re kind of shitting on somebody’s baby.
And we hate it when people tell us how to do SEO or search, like, “People don’t know what they’re talking about.” But yet we look at other people’s work, their copy, and we go, “Oh, let’s take this and put a bunch of words in,” and they’re like, “You’ve just taken my art and just crapped all over it.”
Usually what I find is they’re saying, “I’m not saying I don’t want to make my art better or to make it work for more people,” but I think that we have to have an empathy for the fact that when we’re telling people to change a website, we’re telling somebody that what you did isn’t right for some reason. We have to be careful about that and the way that we phrase that and the way we do that because it is somebody’s work.
While building websites for some people is just, “It’s my work. I make some money at it,” there are, in that group of people, it was like their calling to build better web apps and make things easier for people to use. So when SEO gets in the room, to hear them all kind of be like, “Ah, there’s an SEO here, ooh,” was very eye-opening because they’re experiencing it then and, and they think these are the people who have shit on my work for years and say to their client, “Well, it looks pretty but it doesn’t rank for anything.” It’s like, man, that was their experience and that’s what I learned from that.
How important is it as an SEO to understand how people work versus how search engines work? I think you’ve mentioned empathy over algorithms previously, right?
Wil: Yeah. The phrase that I try to use the most is “audiences over algorithms”. It’s like let’s take time to just humanize the people behind the searches, man. Just talk to some people. SEER’s starting to show people SERPs in real time and saying, “Click on these and tell me what you see and what you think about what you see.” We’re just now starting to have that as some experiments we’re running.
It’s amazing the things you learn that you would never learn just doing keyword research. You hear intonation. You hear frustration. You hear pleasure – “Oh, this looks great! This thing is really the kind of thing that would solve my problems.” “Why?” Then they go, “Well, because it’s got this and it’s got that and it’s got this.” And the whole time I’m like, “Wow, man, I’m learning so much from this person and I have a new perspective that helps me to better understand people that have searched for this word and what they might be looking for.”
Most of us have never had Google purchase something from us. But yet we spend all of our time understanding how Google works and not how people work.
What do you think about the whole startup movement? Are some people just not suited for it? Is it just a fad and a trend and how important is it to grind and hustle?
Woj: I think there is that misconception that, “Oh, I’ll just start a business. It’s cool. It’s a cool thing to do.”
Wil: I think it’s very easy to start a business and have it look legitimate and have it look like you’re actually doing shit. So I think a lot of people are into starting a business not for solving a real user problem. They just want to be able to say they started a business. If that’s what they want to do, that’s fine. But I find that it’s almost become in vogue. It’s like the thing to do. “Oh, I started something up.”
I’d rather be a finisher than a starter. I want to build something that lasts and has an impact.
There’s a concept of, “I just want to work for myself.” That’s cool for some people. For me, I want to build something that has an impact. I think if you want to work for yourself, be an entrepreneur, it’s like a fad today. I don’t even look at it as a thing. Because there’s a lot of people that work inside of companies doing great work and there are people who have gone out on their own and done great work.
Woj: Some people are better suited working for someone else.
Wil: Yeah. Actually, I am. I tried to work at other companies. I spent two years trying to get jobs and no one would hire me so I didn’t have a choice. It worked out, but I’m better wired to have a manager, somebody to help keep me focused on what I really need to be doing and where to put my energy.
I find entrepreneurship to be pretty much just like a self-congratulatory circle jerk. Just a bunch of people, “Oh, you started this up, you started that up! We’re doing this now!” It’s like good forbid somebody just says, “You know what I’ve been doing? The same thing for the last 10 years and I’m working at making it better every day.” That’s just not cool anymore. It’s like you’ve got to jump, jump job, start at this and end at this. I just think it’s just a bunch of bullshit.
Woj: I think the guys that founded Basecamp said it best. Getting VC money is just like taking heroin.
Wil: You’re getting a loan actually.
Woj: You’re getting a hit of it. You run out of money and you need another hit. Then it’s just like a perpetual runway.
Wil: Yeah. To me, I look at gaining VC as where investment is validating, but I don’t pay my bills in validation, right?
Woj: Or with smiles or likes.
Wil: None of that shit. Like, “Oh, I’m on Techmeme.” “Oh, yeah, that’s fucking cool but now somebody’s telling you what to do with your business.” I would never congratulate you on taking out a loan. That’s all they’ve done, and yet if you think about it, you’ve taken out a loan and then the Internet’s like, “Woah, they raised all this money! Look at how awesome they are!” No, they’re no better today raising money than they were yesterday. They’ve just taken out a loan.
I’m not going to congratulate you on taking out a loan. I’m going to congratulate you on actually turning yourself into a profitable business that’s sustainable. That’s congratulations-worthy. The problem is that it’s not as sexy. So therefore you open TechCrunch and it’s all about who raised another $15 from this company. Whatever, man, you took out a loan. That’s nothing to congratulate you on.
Woj: Yeah. It’s so true.
How important is it to take time during the hiring process?
Wil: You know, I think it’s critical. I think it’s actually good to get people around you who are better Wojs than you if you’re off. So I make a lot of decisions on gut, which helps SEER in so many ways, helps us get through a lot of logjams at a high tolerance for risk and making mistakes. But I think in the hiring process that approach is wrong.
The way that I did it early on before I had a better team who could interview better than I could is I would tell people, “Look, let’s be honest with each other. I’m going to tell you every bump and pimple and nasty thing about SEER that’s not great so that you know that. So if you come here and I’m feeling it’s not working, it’s going to be for one of those reasons and I won’t have to go at home and feel bad about letting you go because I know that at your interview I was like, ‘Ask any questions you want to ask. I’m going to tell you where we’re struggling. I’m going to tell you what we’re good at, completely honest.'”
And that helped me to at least get over the feeling that I was like, “Am I painting too good of a picture sometimes and people come in and you’re like, ‘Man, this isn’t working for me.'” I don’t know how to wake up and work with people who are subpar or just don’t care that much about their work or care that much about their coworkers. So early on I was finding myself having it not work out with a lot of people.
Luckily now I have people who are much better at interviewing than me and I also, in that interim, just decided to be really transparent about what worked and what didn’t and why people don’t work out at SEER so then I could tell someone that. So if they came in to do their job, I’d be like, “Remember, I said these six things are things that cause a lot of people at SEER not to work out, so don’t take this job if you are like that because I will not be able to work with you and it won’t work.”
I found that honesty caused a lot of people to be like, “I’m so glad you were willing to do that,” because most companies are trying to sell you on why you should work with me, and I was like, “Let me tell you why you shouldn’t work here.” Because I can’t work with people who I have to re-ping all the time because they forget their shit. “I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do that.” People are like, “Thanks for being so honest because now I know I’m not like that so I can take the job,” or, “I kind of am like that. I kind of do lose my keys sometimes and then I can’t find them for a half hour.” I’m like, “Wait, those kind of people? I’m like that. They don’t work out with me.”
So that was the kind of stuff that I would say to people to help them not take on the job and then find out the hard way what it really took to work out well at SEER.
Woj: I always ask the question, “What question would you ask us to make sure we’re a good fit for you?” so I could see if we have the right fit. That flips the script and relaxes them a little bit because then all of a sudden it doesn’t become, “Alright, I’m competing against all these other applicants. I want to find out if it’s the right fit.”
How important is living life and just being, versus being immersed in your business 24-7? What are some strategies to remind us of the importance of being present and enjoying the time we have on this planet?
Wil: I am immersed in the business 24-7! I just love the work. However, it’s not my number one priority. It makes life easier to not get wrapped up in work when you know what your priorities are. Today, I left this conference to go have lunch with my son because I knew that he slept super late today so I didn’t get to see him this morning. I went to see him today.
Woj: How old is he?
Wil: He’s 18 months. And I’ll see him in a little bit before he goes down for bed, which is why I’m watching my time.
I love this kid. I look at him and I think, “I love that time with him and I will not allow work to take that from him.” My dad missed so many things that I did because he had to. My dad had to work three jobs to be able to send me to a good school so I didn’t have to go to bad schools and all that shit.
If I don’t spend the time that I want to with my son, it’s because I’m greedy. Because I’m in a good place. I don’t need to work really any more to still live a good life. I could wake up tomorrow and be like, “I’m going to sell the company and live until I’m 80 and not have to work again.” But I have the freedom or the option to be able to say, “You know what? I don’t want to build the kind of company, I want to have the kind of life where I fly my kid everywhere with me.” And that’s not always easy. But that’s the life I want to live. He is with me on a TON of trips.
Also, it’s important for me that my “success” with SEER doesn’t mean that my wife has to miss out, like our life surrounds the Wil show. That’s very important for me. So where I can and how I can and when I can, I try to spend as much time as I can with my wife, with her organizations, her nonprofit. I’ve taken time off of work, unplug to go support her in her work.
Our nanny travels with us, which sounds a little bit crazy to even say in an interview but I do that because otherwise I don’t want my wife being like, “Oh when we travel together as a family, it’s my responsibility to help take care of the kid while Wil’s out doing his thing.” I want her to be able to do her thing, me to be able to do my thing, and not have him become the . . . we’re together but I’m now not doing what I love because I have to watch the kid because Wil’s traveling.
Woj: It’s all about balance.
Wil: And that’s what I do. It’s important for me to be a great dad and a great husband. Then all the work stuff that’s around that, much easier.
Woj: On your LinkedIn profile you say that you out-care the competition…
Why are you most proud of your clients sticking around and, in a way, being your sales force?
Wil: Because it’s the best check and balance. SEER’s sales team is me and 25% of my time and two people who have maybe been doing sales for three years. That’s awesome.
We’ve had a chance to work with some of the largest companies in the world and we get those opportunities because somewhere somebody is saying SEER did a good job for me, and it’s so rewarding to know.
So let’s say SEER does $14 million this year, whatever. If we had hit that number through hitting people over the head, having a bunch of salespeople, going out and contacting people all the time to help us get to that number, I would be less proud of us than if we hit the same number and did it by basically having no sales staff.
I come here and we had dinner and drinks with our clients yesterday. There were 24 people here and you think there’s a lot of people who have trusted SEER to help them in their careers, what they’re trying to do with their company. And hopefully, more times than not, we’re a part of the solution and not part of the problem.
We don’t bat 1,000. We definitely make our mistakes. We definitely don’t retain all the clients. I wish we did. We definitely don’t do the work that sometimes I wish we had done. But for the most part we do. That has led to us just having this endless source of just referrals and good vibes and people feel good about us so therefore they refer to us like crazy, and that’s helped us to grow in ways that I would have never thought were possible. So I’m really proud of the fact that our clients are the ones that vouch for us and tell other people about us and that we’ve grown that way, versus having a really good sales force.
Wil: It doesn’t have to be as hard as people say. But the way you get referrals is by making the right decision about the customer at tough times. Those times where you’re like, “Uh, we kind of fucked up and in order to cover my bills this month I need to be able to charge you but the fact that we fucked up is different than the fact that I need to make payroll.”
I remember in early years I’d be like, “Look, don’t pay us. This month you brought a concern to me, I looked at it, it’s legitimate. We should have done a better job. Don’t pay me.” I knew that meant I wasn’t going to make any money that month. But that was the right thing to do. I think when you do that, people feel like, “Woah, you don’t feel like every other agency. Even though you might not have done a great job for us,” or there was a client who fired us, I saw him today.
We didn’t do the work that we had hoped we had done together. But it wasn’t like, “Screw you.” It was like, “Hey, how’re you doing? Hope things are good.” They still wanted good for us because on the way out we wanted good for them. It just wasn’t the right match and we didn’t do our best work. That happens. That’s the reality of business.
But do they still feel good about SEER? Yeah. Were we just a bad match for them at that time? Yeah, that’s also true.
How can we stop confusing outputs with outcomes?
Why is it important to celebrate the outcome rather than the output? You’ve previously talked in terms of marriage as an example was a really good talk. So this example is often used in parallel with the user journey, where we first must date the user instead of marrying them straightaway or sleeping with them straightaway or whatever.
Wil: Yeah. It’s like we’ve already talked about. Raising VC is not an outcome. Growing and running the business to become profitable and sustainable and solving problems for people in a real way and adding more to this world hopefully. That’s the outcome of running a business.
Raising VC is just part of the process. I think for a lot of people that’s almost like the outcome. “Oh, you’ve raised VC, you’ve made it!” You’ve taken out a loan. You haven’t made shit. It’s the same with marketing. It’s the same with running a business.
You look at marketing and search and people would be like, “Oh, my quality scores went up. That’s good.” Or down or whatever. That might be good or bad but it’s about getting revenue in the cash register for our clients.
So for me, I try really hard to make sure that my team remembers we’re here to help them grow their business.
We are not here to get them links or rankings.
What we believe is that rankings are a part of the steps we have to go through to help them grow their business. But you and I know it’s completely possible to get somebody to rank highly for something that doesn’t actually help them grow their business, that brings in the wrong traffic. It’s a byproduct.
So I’m really trying now to focus on the revenue side of things and saying, “Let’s focus on the revenue, and what would happen if getting the rankings and the links were the byproduct of the revenue growth,” which I’ll talk about tomorrow in my presentation.
Woj: Oh, nice. I look forward to it.
What do you think about the notion that if you make a product that sells a problem, it will sell itself?
Wil: I don’t believe that. I believe if you make a great product that solves people’s problems well, you almost have a responsibility to market the hell out of it because it’s better than the other things that are on the market.
You’ve got to get it out there. Otherwise, people are going to start finding the wrong solution. One of the reasons why I scaled my business – didn’t really want to – but I was like, “Man, if I don’t grow here, there’s a whole lot of shitty SEO companies who are going to take this business.” I was in your position. I was turning away business like crazy because I wanted to stay small early on. I’m like, “Man, wow, there’s a lot of bad SEO companies that people might end up with.”
So going back to your question, I think that a lot of times people don’t know that the product exists. If you don’t market it, they won’t know that you’ve actually built something that solves their problem. So I think it’s really important to market the solution because I don’t think the concept “if you build it, they will come”, it will solve itself, I don’t think that actually happens.
Some products might be able to sell themselves. Google’s never really marketed us to use Google.
Woj: That’s true.
Wil: So it happens. But it depends on what you’re trying to do. I think it’s rare and it depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re not trying to scale or grow a business or an organization, you want to just throw stuff out and see if it can kind of just take on its own, sure. But I like to be more purposeful and intentional about SEER’s growth.
I know volunteering is close to heart, so how important is it to be of service to others and why should companies be doing volunteering and supporting charity causes?
Wil: I think it’s important because it helps you not think that your shit’s so bad. It’s just true. When you work with somebody who’s got something going on, it helps you to realize that no matter how stressful your day was, there’s a lot of people who have real stress. So it helps me to take stress and kind of compartmentalize it. Like, “I have to get this presentation done in the next day,” is a different type of stress than, “I hope my child lives,” or, “I hope that my child’s being taken care of in some shelter somewhere, not out in the streets.”
The reason why I think it’s important for companies is because the more the individuals in your organization spend time with people who aren’t like them, the broader their perspectives are. And the broader your perspective is about different types of people, the better business you actually become. So I think the diversity of thought improves whenever your team meets and is engaged with people who aren’t like them and their bubble, and I think that’s a good thing for every company. You build better products and solutions when the people who build it have broader perspectives.
Woj: It’s a humbling experience as well.
Wil: Oh god, yeah. Do you think you’ve got some problems because we lost a client and then you see somebody who’s lost a child or has a child who is lost in the sense of homelessness. I’ve worked with sick kids in the hospital and I spend a lot of time working with homeless kids. It’s like, man, I look at my son, how much I love spending time with him, and I remember that I worked not with kids at that young of an age, but young kids when I was doing some volunteer work in the hospital who didn’t necessarily make it. I can’t imagine not having my son in my life and what that would be like.
It also helps you to feel like you’re doing something in this world to move things down the field, make things a little bit better and not just make my clients better, or make my company better. You want to have an impact on the community around your company. It’s one that’s really important for me.
Where do you see yourself in five years’ time personally and SEER?
Wil: I don’t know where I’ll be in five years because I don’t try to think too far down the road because I never want to attach my happiness to something five years away because I feel that I’ll stop paying attention to the little things that can make me happy today.
My real goal is to wake up tomorrow, love the work I’m doing, love the people I get to do it with.
I’ve run into four alumni from SEER today and it just feels good to see them, to see how they’re doing. I was talking to one of the folks we used to work with. She’s got a boyfriend now. “Tell me about so-and-so is he treating you good and all that?” I want tomorrow to be like that and I want my next five years to be full of those kinds of tomorrows and I feel like if I have a good day tomorrow and I’m moving things down the field and I’m being the father I want to be, the husband I want to be and being good to my coworkers and finding ways to help SEER do more in the community, if I can do a little bit of that everyday, then when I get to that five-year mark, it’ll feel great. If I try to set some five-year milestone for myself, I think I might lose sight of the little things I want to be doing every day to get there, if that makes sense.
Woj: Yeah, totally.
Wil: So what I hope five years from now is that I’m back at SEER or somewhere and I’m talking about something with somebody about something that I love to do. I hope that I’m still checking my phone being like, “Oh my god, I hope my son’s not going to sleep soon.” And I hoping I’m doing all those things because that’s my life and I love my life and I love the things that I’m doing and the people I’m doing it with. Whether it’s my team, my clients or my family, I just love all of it. It’s all good.
So that’s what I’m hoping I’m doing tomorrow and I hope I get to have that tomorrow for the next five years because it’ll be a great life if I do.
Woj: Yeah. Well, I look forward to your talk tomorrow and I really appreciate your time. You’re an interesting dude.
Wil: Dude, thanks so much for the interview.
For more Wil be sure to hit him up on Twitter.
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