Eli Schwartz, SEO author of the best-selling book Product-Led SEO on Amazon, shares how he made his first six-figure freelancing income. Schwartz started working in SEO in 2006 and started freelance work shortly after. His freelancing revenue quickly topped six figures, despite his regular 9-to-5 work and compensation. He focused on expanding organic channels and strategy over keywords, leading to the realization that many organizations need more than traditional SEO. He has spent over 15 years looking for freelance work and has earned a bachelor’s degree.
Eli Schwartz joins us today to talk about how he made his first six-figure freelancing income. Eli is the author of the best-selling book Product-Led SEO on Amazon.
Eli started working in SEO in 2006 and started doing freelance work practically shortly after. As you can see from the table below, in addition to his regular “9-to-5” work and compensation, Eli’s freelancing revenue swiftly topped six figures.
Please give a brief explanation of your occupation. What inspired you to begin? When did you start looking?
As a growth consultant, I help companies comprehend and put search engine optimization ideas into practice.
I am currently a consultant in this space as a result of my most recent full-time work at SurveyMonkey. For this job, there were already extensive teams in charge of engineering, blogging, marketing, and content creation. My goal therefore focused more on how to expand organic channels into the biggest and highest revenue-generating channel possible rather than how to draw more attention to keywords. (This is also the source of the idea for my novel.)
Finding the solution to the aforementioned issue led me to the realization that many organizations need less traditional “SEO” and more work on strategy, diplomacy, navigating roadmaps, and winning people over. I started working as a freelancer for other companies as soon as I realized this, taking this act on the road.
I’ve spent more than 15 years looking.
Have you earned your bachelor’s degree? Additionally, what is it? And do you think it played any role in getting you to where you are now?
In all honesty, my Master in Business Administration from the University of Baltimore is utterly useless right now.
I had a mostly positive experience in higher school, with the exception of the writing program. I had terrible teachers who excessively commented my papers and I was a bad writer, but I got better. Effective writing and communication are essential for SEO, in my opinion, since it makes the difference between making $100 and $1,000 per hour.
Do you recommend skipping college for those interested in growth or digital in light of the aforementioned?
I advise everyone to get a college education. I think it offers the broadest and most extensive exposure to the world. Absolutely, you can learn anything at the library. YouTube might potentially offer information equivalent to a degree, but how many people have the discipline to achieve that?
If you don’t go to college, how else will you get a well-rounded education where you study a little bit of science, a little bit of math, and a little bit of writing?
This foundational information is really helpful to me in my consulting practice. Consider a customer working in the crypto industry. Although cryptocurrency didn’t exist when I was in school, I am familiar enough with economic theory to make an attempt to include it in talks about SEO strategy.
An vital skill that isn’t typically (directly) taught in college is communicating with customers. This is based on my expertise as Director of Growth at SurveyMonkey. I am currently interacting with businesses at a level where I might be a vice president, where responsibilities are constantly assigned and conveyed. You will get 100% support as opposed to a “hell no” reaction if you can accomplish it successfully.
Executive presence, in my opinion, emerges from confidence. The frequent use of “it depends” and “I don’t know” by SEOs is one of my biggest pet peeves in the SEO business. It is better to state, “There are a variety of possible outcomes, but based on my experience and knowledge, I believe this is the most likely outcome.” Does that imply you’ll be correct? No, doctors aren’t always right, but they do have a strong opinion about what you should do next, and their confidence provides you the assurance you need to heed it.
What was the title and pay of your first full-time job?
It’s interesting that I didn’t start college right away. I made an effort to completely ignore it and immediately entered the field of finance, which at the time attracted my attention.
I am from Maryland and moved to New York to work in finance. At the New York Stock Exchange, I was recruited as a messenger for $6 per hour. Between brokers and the places where they completed deals, I would transfer vouchers. Due to technology, this occupation is no longer relevant.
When I was employed as a full-time clerk for a hedge fund on the New York Stock Exchange at the age of 18, I was invincible and had a salary of $24,000 as well as health insurance (which I don’t think I ever signed up for).
I spent around six months in that role until I was ultimately let go. It broke me since one of my fantasies was destroyed. I came to the decision that I needed to go to college as a result of this experience and the total devastation of the banking industry brought on by 9/11 (which is a completely separate tale).
When did you start working on your own during your career? What made you want to work for yourself?
I originally discovered SEO around 15–16 years ago. I started (failed) as soon as I thought I understood SEO after reading blogs. I made a website announcement about my consulting availability.
My first motivation for freelancing was to augment my fixed income. I thought that since I was the only person who had this particular information, others may be prepared to pay for it. It didn’t seem too tough, and I knew that other consultants were making a lot of money with this knowledge.
I also came to the conclusion that a healthy work-life balance, financial flexibility, and frequent wage raises were all major motivators for me. An response to both of these problems was freelancing.
In addition to your full-time salary, you made over $150,000 through freelance work. Inform us about it.
This accomplishment was mostly due to one important customer, and it was because of this experience that I decided I could do this full-time.
For my initial few clients a number of years ago, I simply charged $100 per hour. To make $2,000 a month, for instance, I charged one of them $100 per hour for 20 hours. Then they started pushing back and asking, “Well, maybe can you work 10 hours a month?” I felt it was fairly silly since I had no clue what to take away from the 20-hour commitment. At first, I didn’t have any problems. I had no choice but to watch since they got same value (from me) for less money.
So $100/hr. At the time, it felt like a big figure, but I soon recognized it wasn’t the right strategy.
After giving it some attention, I started to wonder why I was billing $100 per hour. As the customer’s “SEO consultant,” I started charging between 1-2-3 thousand dollars each client rather than the typical 1-2K per month retainer. These were all, however, insignificant clients.
I started building a strong online profile on LinkedIn and started attending/speaking at conferences in order to get the big customer. My visibility was increasing since I had blog pieces on Search Engine Journal, Search Engine Land, and other tech publications.
One day, the Chief Product Officer of a publicly traded firm sends me a message on LinkedIn. Although it seemed to come from nowhere, the message was the culmination of years of developing a personal brand. They had a serious SEO problem since they had long controlled their business. For terms they had essentially invented, they all of a sudden lost their dominance and started to disappear. They needed help.
We talked about the problems we were facing. They thought I may be useful.
What are your charges, they enquired? I wanted to experiment with a much larger fee because I reasoned, “These guys are public, a multi-billion dollar company that is traded on the stock market, and I was billing $2000 or $3,000 at the time for smaller companies.” I gave the executive a $10,000 monthly stipend since I anticipated negotiations. He responded, “Can you send us a contract this afternoon? “, fully expecting his retort of “Are you insane?”
This public firm employed me for more than a year, and this is how I started making more than $100,000 per year in addition to my principal income, with just one customer worth over $100,000 and a scattering of lesser clients.
What made you decide to become a full-time freelancer given your success as a part-timer?
There are two reasons, in my opinion: first, I had been doing SEO for a very long time, and I was at SurveyMonkey for almost seven years (including a two-year stint in Singapore leading APAC marketing). second, my career was varied and interesting, but I was looking for a new job because I was too comfortable in my current position. I was fortunate that the task was so straightforward.
I also realized that it might be challenging to satisfy my complete compensation package given the additional equity I was accumulating, and because I had transitioned from the marketing team to the product team in previous positions, I had also received larger (and more frequent) raises than most recruiting managers were willing to pay for my expertise. Many of these companies did not seek candidates with extensive experience; rather, they sought manager-level candidates.
I could have, for example, gone to Amazon and worked harder for less pay, but I didn’t think it made much sense. This position would have required me to give up freelancing, and I would have been expected to work much harder. So I’m interviewing at these amazing companies, but I can’t find a suitable position.
I could not stop thinking about how well this freelancing endeavor is going and how business is flowing to me, which is the second reason I did not want to stay at SurveyMonkey. I also did not want to switch to a different company. I never had to send emails inquiring, “Is there anything I can do?There was, however, a reoccurring issue I needed to solve: These clients expected my availability during business hours. ” Employ me!So, opportunities were flowing in, and I was able to obtain a considerable number of them.
I regret that I cannot attend next week, but I have no choice but to decline a (side) client’s request that I meet their team in Seattle on short notice due to a product review meeting at work, my one-on-one meeting with my supervisor, my one-on-one meeting with my team, and then we will have happy hour.
I came to the conclusion that full-time employment had to end because I was not as inspired by my 9-to-5 job as I could have been. I started to realize that my job was preventing me from signing the freelance contracts I desired. Hey, you’re employed? How are you going to be our consultant, we want you to be available and to start hopping on meetings when we tell you to.
I have decided to give this a try, so I started building incredibly precise burn rate budgets and comparing them to actual budgets utilizing all the extra money I was making and saving.
I quit my job in April 2019 with the idea of making it through the rest of the year on this income; if I succeed, I’ll keep doing this; if not, I’ll look for work. Fortunately, I didn’t need to find another (full-time) job.
Has the amount of time spent working as a freelancer changed over the years compared to previous 9 to 5 jobs?
I strongly recommend that anyone who feels they can thrive at freelancing give it a try, and I would love to hear from anyone who needs support with striking out on their own. My tension level is so much lower than in my past roles that I cannot even quantify it on the same scale.
How does freelancing affect your ability to balance work and life?
I view my day as consisting of eight hours of default availability every day, so I do not use Calendly or other comparable meeting services. Therefore, a one-hour meeting day is ideal for me. If I have a five-hour meeting schedule, that’s fine too. But I only schedule meetings based on my immediate requirements.
What I’ve found is that you question, “I have an eight-hour day; how will I spend my eight hours? ” from the standpoint of an employee or a freelancer.It doesn’t matter if you are doing duties or attending meetings; you must be active. If you’re an employee, it’s like I’m working for my company, therefore I need to occupy my time with a lot of busywork.
All of my non-meeting work is completed during the day or at night, when I am not required to be with my family. Work-life balance is important to me, so I do not adhere to a set schedule. For example, my children arrive home every day at 4:00 p.m. I will not schedule a meeting unless a client requests it, and I will not suggest it either.
When you deal with the right customers and at the right level (peer versus contractor), people value your time more. I plan my life around the times I know I’ll be traveling.
What makes a 9-to-5 job enticing or what would keep you from returning? Would you ever consider going back to one?
I hate to say that, but yeah!
I prefer being among people and working on projects with others, and while I regularly speak with my clients, I am not a part of a team and am not a part of what they are doing or their culture, so the hardest part about being alone is that I am alone.
As a consequence, I would think about returning to a 9-to-5 job for the benefit of society since I would like the challenge more than the actual work.
Are you a proponent of ‘Product-Led SEO’ for SEO consultants?
I wanted to be able to set myself apart from other consultants because I think it’s fairly straightforward to just say that I’m an SEO freelancer who understands what they’re talking about, and the book helps create trust.
I wanted this asset and believed it would function as a business card; I would offer my book to potential clients and explain that it describes my growth marketing approach. I needed two years to complete the book.
The second reason I wrote a book was to be able to articulate how I think SEO should be structured. SEO is a service that focuses on the overall picture of what you (as a business) are creating. It is not about what you should optimize for today or how you can improve your ranking for a single keyword. I wished to discuss my approach to SEO in all of my previous positions and what I offer as a consultant.
Should my publication be relevant for freelancers? Evidently, there is an audience for my book that wishes to consider SEO from a broader strategic perspective, so I suppose it is applicable to anyone involved in SEO. I never imagined that my books would sell more than, say, 500 copies. I’ve had the good fortune to sell thousands.
I was aware that no other SEO book had been published in this manner when I started writing the book; all SEO books on Amazon are very practical. I did not really concentrate on this because I wanted to maintain a high level of performance. For example, when I discuss linkage, I provide an overview of what links are and why they are important in lieu of here is a quick workarood.
The book is helpful for anyone who wants to learn more about strategic SEO but is unfamiliar with it from their own practice. Therefore, this is why I wrote it. Please review the book and feel free to disagree with it (and with me). I believe that this line of reasoning is applicable to everyone.
Finally, what tips, books, blogs, or other resources would you suggest to someone who wants to start freelancing?
I think that everybody who wants to start freelancing already has a certain amount of experience in their field, however they might not have the promotion skills.
The ability to market your ideas and convince someone that you know what you’re doing well enough for them to pay you makes the difference between a successful and unsuccessful Freelancer. There is a wide gap between knowing and being an expert, so I do not anticipate that everyone will be suitable for freelancing.
Can you explain your views in writing? Can you convey your thoughts with data? I think this is an essential skill, coupled with excellent communication.
Even if you are a great SEO consultant and can clinch the deal with an executive, it will be tough to justify your cost to the firm if you can’t persuade engineers to follow your advice.
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