Should You Work For Clients Or Yourself?

Early last week Brian Provost of Scoreboard Media Group posted The First Question You Should Ask Your SEO Consultant. That question according to Brian is “If you can rank a site in lucrative markets, why would you do it for clients instead of for yourself?” It’s an interesting question and one deserving discussion.

Brian gives what he considers are the only three honest answers to the question.

  1. I choose interesting projects that give me looks at complex problems I wouldn’t normally see in the course of building out my own sites.
  2. I understand that I don’t know everything and, while I can help your business succeed in quality search engine traffic, your business is successful in a facet of this business I feel I could learn from you on.
  3. I think easy cash today is better than more cash a year from now.

All three of the above are valid reasons and Brian does give more details on his answers to each so I encourage you to read his post. But if you’re currently an SEO not working on your own projects you might find yourself not fitting into one of these three answers and having your own reasons why all your present work is for clients.

One thing I’ve learned over the course of my life is not to pretend to know all the things that might motivate someone. We all come with our own unique set of experiences that form the reasons we make the choices we make in life. In limiting the possible responses to three Brian does many people a great injustice.

As you might expect Brian’s post generated a reaction and the reaction I’ll point you to is from SEOmoz’s Wasting Time or Clearly Incompetent – The SEO Consulting Debate.

If you read Rand’s post (and you should, as well as the comments that follow) you can see he basically agrees with Brian. Rand differs however in what skills he thinks are being called into question by working for clients as opposed to your own projects. My own thoughts echo Rand’s. Marketing a site is different than creating business models and being skilled in one is no guarantee of the other. SEOs are supposed to be good at marketing. Some will also be good at creating profitable business models, but not all have to be or even want to be.

Brian does make some excellent points though, and he’s far from the only one who would advocate working on your projects. One of the first things I noticed when I first started learning seo is that many respected SEOs are making a good deal of their money working for themselves. It’s something I’ve long considered for myself and the only reasons I have yet to begin is I haven’t decided on a project I feel passionate enough about to want to start and because I still need to pay the rent. Your own projects don’t pay you right away after all.

Brian also stated

If anyone with more than 3 years of experience is allocating more than 50% of their time to consulting, I’m going on record as doubting their skills.

Since I’m only half way into those three years I suppose I still have another year and a half before my skills are called into question, but I don’t think it’s fair to question someone’s skills because they don’t choose to do what you would do under a given situation.

Again I’m not saying it’s not a good idea to work on your own projects. I think it is and I think being able to draw an income from something other than clients makes a lot of sense. What I am saying is that not everyone wants to or has to work on their own projects.

Brian posted a follow up piece today, Attack of the SEOmoz Clones: More Thoughts On SEO Consulting, because of Rand’s post and the comments it generated. I want to comment on two of the points he makes today.

I think it was Jane from SEOmoz who asked why an SEO would choose to rank a site for [portland hair salon] for themselves rather than a client….

…yes, but there’s no money in local hair salon SERPs. By all means, if you need the jack, take that on as a consulting project because it shouldn’t be too hard to rank for that.

If I’m following Brian’s argument to completion then if you take this kind of project you’re either hurting for money or don’t have the skills for anything else. Does that mean all mom and pops need to seo their own sites, because no one with any real skills is going to help them? I’m just not sure that’s fair to say.

Brian also goes on to say

Do not lob the bleeding heart “teaching is so rewarding” argument at me. Trust me, it’s not as rewarding as cashing checks from your couch.

This one bothers me. Making money is rewarding, but it’s not at all the only motivation people have. I admit making money is high on my list of priorities, but it’s not #1 on the list. The way I earn the money I make and the lifestyle my chosen profession allows me will always be more important to me than the money I make for myself. I suspect I’m not alone in that and one of the main reasons people give for choosing a career as an SEO is the lifestyle. Money is up there, but there are other things in life that are rewarding.

I suppose Brian would also say that no doctor should ever work at a free clinic or that no lawyer should ever take a job as a public defender. I suppose no one should ever follow artistic pursuits either since art is an unlikely path to wealth.

One more time I want to say I agree with much of what Brian says. I think devoting more time to your own projects is a good thing. It’s not enjoyable working for clients who don’t want to follow your suggestions, but still want you to take the responsibility when your advice isn’t implemented. Not every client has a site and business you will feel passionate about. Ideally I think most of us would like to be able to pick and choose the projects we work on and one way to achieve that is to develop those projects yourself. And in fact I do hope if we fast forward a few years that I’m spending 50% or more of my time on projects I develop for myself as Brian suggests.

What I don’t think is fair though, is calling into question the skills of anyone who doesn’t follow that plan. We all have reasons why we do the things we do. Those reasons won’t always be known to others and often enough they aren’t always known to ourselves. There are many reasons why someone would prefer not to work on their own projects. Yes a lack of skills might be one of those reasons, but it’s far from the only one. There are simply more than three valid responses to Brian’s initial question

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  1. There are a number of problems with this type of thinking; you’ve pointed out the most fundamental, that we’re all motivated differently. Still, the problems go deeper. The articles suggest that anybody with any skill at SEO should be an empire builder. My photography site is my pet project, and yet I work IT by day. It might be more profitable to run every aspect of my life as an enterprise, but there are priorities.

    Besides, SEO can be a person’s project, if that’s what they’re good at. That skill doesn’t obligate a person to run some type of web store, especially if it doesn’t make them happy.

  2. Thanks Forrest. I do agree with a lot of what Brian has to say. For example if someone came to me to seo their affiliate site that makes no sense since it would be just as easy to replicate their site and market it for myself. And I do think it’s a good idea for SEOs to work on their own projects since there are peaks and valleys when it comes to clients and there’s a lot to like about financial independence.

    But I don’t think it’s fair at all to decide you know what motivates someone or to assume only a lack of skills is the reason for not choosing the most profitable path in life.

    You’re right that for some the passion is the seo part and not the business model part. There’s a difference in the skillset of each and there’s a different kind if interest to doing both. Having the skills for both is a great complement. It’s also great for someone to know how to design a website or program an application, but not everyone wants or needs to know how to do all those things.

    In all fairness to Brian he’s really only talking about a very specific type of SEO. One who is at the top of his or her game and most of those SEOs likely will move more towards the empire building, but again the ones who don’t aren’t automatically lacking in seo skills.

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