Small business owner Harry Sanders is helping drive a revolution in the notoriously scandal-ridden search engine optimisation (SEO) industry.
The 21-year-old entrepreneur is the founder of StudioHawk, an SEO provider with no lock-in contracts that’s shot to prominence over the last two years.
While disruption and innovation are generally behind growth stories, Sanders is the first to concede he hasn’t reinvented the wheel. But in an industry were actually getting what you pay for is remarkably rare, just doing the job can make you a winner.
The company, which Sanders started when he was 17, booked $1.3 million in billables last year, and with more than 150 clients, Sanders hopes he’ll surpass $2 million this year.
Having just opened an office in London, the 21-year-old is now going global, which is suitably ambitious given his age.
“Our mission is not just to be the best in Australia, but the world,” he tells SmartCompany.
But had you asked him four years ago, Sanders would have given you a very different answer about his future.
Growing up in Melbourne Sanders was, in many ways, no different than many millennials teens — school during the day, video games at night.
But, aged 13, things changed for Sanders, who picked up SEO as a consequence of an all-too-familiar story in the digital marketplace.
The teen witnessed firsthand how his father, the owner of his own boat licensing company, was convinced to sign the dotted line on an SEO contract that almost destroyed his business.
“One day he just got a call from an SEO company, they promised him the world — they’d double his traffic and change his business,” Sanders says.
“They did absolutely nothing.”
Barely a teenager, Sanders, a keen Runescape player, had dreamed of becoming a game developer, but with his father’s company struggling and home life strained, he decided to teach himself the ins and outs of Google’s search revolution.
“At 13, you think you can have a crack at anything,” he says.
Like a duck to water, it wasn’t long before Sanders had put his father’s company on the map. Pages started to rank, and six months later, his father got a phone call out of the blue.
“Who the hell is doing your SEO?”
“Well, it’s my son,” his father replied.
One thing led to another, and Sanders found himself in an oversized suit, walking in the door of an SEO agency for his first part-time job.
When Sanders finished high school he was pretty sure what he wanted to do afterwards. Encouraged by his early success, he started his own SEO business, StudioHawk, at age 17.
Making it big from under a bridge
If you had asked Sanders at the time, he’d tell you this is the bit of the story where the knight in shining armour lives happily ever after.
“I thought I was going to start my own company and kill it,” Sanders says.
“That was very dumb.”
While Sanders had ambitions to make it as a search entrepreneur, his family life — as it too often is when small businesses are involved — was collapsing around him. Sanders’ mother and father had separated by this point and his father had found a new partner who wasn’t too enthused by his interests.
“She didn’t like that I was in my room with a computer all day,” he says.
Before he knew it, Sanders found himself on the streets, left to fend for himself at 17 with nothing more than an idea for an SEO company.
Without any clients or a place to sleep, his next week was spent under a bridge in Melbourne, cold calling as many firms as he could to land his first clients.
“The mental headspace you’re in, you feel worthless,” Sanders explains.
“I knew I needed clients, I had this company, I said, ‘I’ve got to make this shit work’.”
Desperate, he began offering prospective clients free campaigns with a promise they’d start paying him $500 a month when they started making money.
In a week he managed to convince four businesses to give him a shot and began working on their accounts full time, moving between support services at St Vincent’s, his aunt’s, and couch surfing with friends.
Two of the clients never paid him, but the other two are still using his services to this day and “referred me to friends”.
“Six months later I had a sharehouse organised,” Sanders says. “I remember getting in and just crying.”
“Lock-in contracts are bullshit”
From there, Sanders’ talents for SEO were able to flourish. He steadily built a base of customers over the next four years through referrals and began charting a path to clean up the industry that cheated his father.
As SmartCompany has previously reported, the SEO industry is widely regarded as a minefield of scammers, sharks and lock-in contracts that leave business owners holding the bag with big bills and no traffic.
Most agencies have a broad focus, offering SEO in addition to Adwords and digital marketing. Lock-in contracts, which prevent business owners from walking away without paying a fee, are the standard.
“It’s seen as a tack on service — something people offer because they don’t want to lose a client,” Sanders says.
“Lock-in contracts are bullshit, it shouldn’t be legal.”
Now a board member of the Australian Web Industry Association (AWIA), Sanders is working with regulators to overhaul established practices, hoping to improve the industry’s reputation.
“SEO isn’t a black box, it’s very measurable,” Sanders says.
“There’s accepted best practice. Anyone who tells you they can’t deliver results is lying.”
Instead, Sanders believes overbearing sales culture and a lack of SEO specialists is driving poor practice in the industry, calling for the ACCC to look into a “complete overhaul” of digital contracts.
“It’s not an unfixable industry … the problem is I can name the number of good people on a single hand,” Sanders says.
StudioHawk’s approach has won it some big business.
With clients such as The Good Guys and Officeworks on the books, Sanders says there’s clearly ample opportunity in the industry for players that can demonstrate consistent results based on formulaic, not merely ‘creative’, strategies.