Simon Dalley is the Founder & Director of GrowTraffic. Over the course of a marketing career that has lasted almost two decades, he has held a number of enviable senior marketing management roles. He has worked with a wide range of global organisations including almost every automotive manufacturer operating in the UK. He has headed up the marketing function at several national brands and he was part of the teams responsible for the marketing launch of car valuation brand WeBuyAnyCar and leading HR software solution BrightHR.
Whilst working in corporate marketing management roles, Simon was always working on a side hustle. In 2009 he launched the website www.growtraffic.co.uk; at first as a space to vent and share his ideas about marketing and especially about SEO, but a site that he quickly turned into a lead generating website and business that by all accounts has dramatically changed his life over the last ten years.
Simon had an unusual route when it came to founding his business. Working in management roles in the day time whilst setting up in business isn’t that unusual. However, it is more unusual for a business owner to still be working in a full-time capacity when their business has been up and running for years, employing a whole agency’s full of people.
So we thought we’d get to know Simon Dalley. We wanted to find out what motivates someone to turn their back-bedroom SEO consultancy into an award-winning and well-respected SEO agency and find out just how someone finds time to be both front and centre in a full-time role and ensure a team is fully up to speed and fully motivated.
How did you get started in this business?
GrowTraffic isn’t really my first business. It’s probably my third or fourth business. I started my first business when I was living in Manchester back in 2000. I used to keep pet rats and I used to breed them and sell them. I built my first website for that business. At the time I was selling rats to people throughout the country. People came from miles around to buy them. In fact, I exported rats outside the country. I didn’t only breed and sell rats when I was younger, but I also built cages for them that I sold as well. Believe it or not, this first business paid my way through university and whilst I don’t think anyone could get rich from breeding rats, this is how I first learned marketing and how I first learned about the benefits of SEO. After university, I had achieved my breeding goals and I lost interested in breeding rats. I tried to rekindle the business several years later but I wasn’t able to rekindle the passion I had for it.
I did some freelance marketing and market research work for some existing contacts in the mid-2000s, but it was only around the time my son was due to be born that I got serious about setting something up that would protect me should I ever find myself being out of work.
I’d already made some good contacts in the industry and I was thinking about just going out with Simon Dalley SEO, but I had the niggle in the back of my mind that I should choose a brand in case I ever wanted to build out an SEO agency.
I was fortunate enough to be able to capture some high ranking spots, including being number one in Google for freelance SEO consultant for quite a few years back at a time when there was only one version of the results. This catapulted the business for the first couple of years.
How do you make money?
We make money through marketing retainers, training courses, hosting fees and one-off pieces of work. Most of our income comes in the form of marketing retainers though. The kind of SEO we do is all about medium-term strategies that deliver long term benefits, so we’re able to sign customers up for 6-month contracts up to 24-month contracts. This really helps when it comes to planning for the business. One-off work is great, but that really is the icing on the cake, we are always careful to ensure the employee salaries are covered by the recurring revenues.
How long did it take for you to become profitable?
GrowTraffic was profitable on the first day we brought on a client. Within two and a half years it was paying for two young consultants earning £30k a year each and a small office. It was never my aspiration for it to be big. In fact, the difficulty I saw in breaking that income threshold with the model we had was part of the reason I remained in marketing management for as long as I did. Agency life is hugely varied and fun, but it can be a great big hassle as well, it’s like you’ve got tens of bosses all demanding your time and attention. That’s not so much fun so after a while we kind of scaled the business back and it went back to just being me for a year or two, still profitable but mainly because the business had very little costs. In my opinion, you’ve got to either be earning a decent whack or getting the lifestyle you want for it to be worth it.
By around 2014 I’d built it back up to the point where it was earning more than a salary every month and I brought our first employee in at that point. Rachel was fundamental to building the business over the next few years and we had our moments when we sacrificed profitability for growth. But overall we’ve mainly been profitable on the journey.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
I’ve doubted whether it was all worth it or whether it would really work several times. After 11 years, I still do now. I learned a lesson early on from two friends of mine who had built a business together that now turns over about £60million a year. It took three years before the first of the two directors could join the business and it took six years before the second director could join the business fulltime. When I was starting out with GrowTraffic they were turning over around £1m after ten years and they were still growing. Every time I doubted whether it would work or whether I’d ever be able to stop financially supporting the business and join the business in a fulltime capacity I always remembered that. It took several years but the plan worked.
How did you get your first customer?
It’s terrible to admit this but I can’t remember the first customer we got. I definitely didn’t keep records of things like that back then. I know it was an enquiry from the website. Looking back at it now, I was so confident I knew what I was doing I don’t think I was excited or pleased when the first leads came through the site I just kind of got on with it. I’m more excited about winning clients and closing deals now than I was back then. I think in some ways back then it was more about the work. Although they’re not the first client we still have a client that we work with from 2010, so we must be doing something right.
What is one marketing strategy (other than referrals) that you’re using that works really well to generate new business?
Even in the SEO business, referrals are still the best kinds of leads, but we use a good mix of approaches to generate new business. We are on social media. We use lead aggregators. We create a lot of content – and I’m a bit of a stickler for creating content in the consideration phases of the buying cycle – which requires quite a deep understanding of the customer but also of the competitive landscape. And organically we have some great rankings for a number of competitive search terms and every day we get enquiries from people finding us on Google, which hopefully goes to show we know what we’re doing.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
Many of the decisions I make aren’t difficult at all. I raise questions and push us back on course from time to time but really the team are fully capable of getting GrowTraffic to where we want it to be. We have a big investment in the offing at the moment and I am about to make a call about whether we should continue or cut our losses. I’ve made the decision but I need to bring everyone else with me.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
I’ve always thought I would write a book called: ‘Succeeding To Fail’ There are all those books out there that talk about the importance of failing in order to succeed and I just think it’s all rubbish. No one sets out to fail or when they are going through it thinks it a good thing. If we didn’t have to fail, we wouldn’t. But my career and life really are littered with failure and it depends on your yardstick whether you consider what I’ve achieved to be a success. I’ve certainly never looked at it that way. All I see is the failure. There have been a couple of moments in my life when I’ve felt like I’ve really started to succeed or have made it but those have generally been the moments when something big has gone wrong, often link to my own sense of success.
What has been your most satisfying moment in business?
I’ve achieved some amazing things in my professional life. I’m very lucky for what I’ve done, but I think I was most satisfied when GrowTraffic won the business of the year at our local business awards: The R Awards. It was also a phyric victory for me because not only did I have pride in what had been achieved, it was also at that moment that I realised what I’d given up for it. I think many business owners will recognise those feelings of loss of control over their own business, especially those who bring in other directors, family members or investors. It’s a constant emotional battle I have with how I feel about this business. I set the business up with the express aims of ensuring I would have an income after I stopped working in corporate marketing, whilst allowing me to position myself as a leading expert and ultimately to give me control over my own life. But the business is so much bigger than me now and those original goals, whilst still an important part of what GrowTraffic is about, have been superseded by loftier ambition.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
We are currently in the process of acquiring a commercial property to convert into a small digital hub with offices for GrowTraffic and other local digital businesses. In addition to the property, we are also developing a new piece of software, which will be a core part of GrowTraffic’s offering. I see those two projects as being a core part of building a group of companies that will really drive the business beyond the limitations of our core business’ relatively labour-intensive model.
What business books have inspired you?
My favourite business book is Lost and Founder by Rand Fishkin. I like it because he is just so honest in it. He talks about his journey from founding a business through to basically being removed by the board. I can relate to many parts of his journey, including the feelings that he describes feeling throughout the process. It’s an ugly book in places but very honest.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
If you wait for the right time you’ll be waiting for a long time. Sometimes, maybe most times, it’s better to take a leap of faith.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
If someone is just setting out or wants to speak to someone who has gone through what they’re going through, then I’d love to speak to them. It’s probably best they head over to my page on GrowTraffic which can be found here: https://www.growtraffic.co.uk/seo-consultant/