TalkingLocal – Interview with Matthew Hunt & Dev Basu
In March 2014, 3 successful Toronto-based (Powered by Search, Small Business Online Coach & NetConneXion) digital marketing agencies merged together to form 1 large agency under the Powered by Search brand.
As CEO Dev Basu described it – ” this is an important step in our aggressive growth strategy and moves us closer to becoming the leading digital marketing agency in North America”
We found this move fascinating:
- What issues drove these 3 successfully businesses to come together?
- What opportunities did it create?
- What could our consultant & agency clients learn from this?
So we invited two of the forces behind the move, Matt & Dev, to tell us about the ‘what’, the ‘why’, and the ‘how’ of this merger and how it is working out now the honeymoon period is over.
Key Discussion Points
- The backgrounds of Matt & Dev in the local search industry
- The primary motivations for choosing to partner up
- The pressures of being part of a larger agency
- How their clients have benefited from the move
- Key advice they would give to anyone starting their own agency
- The long-term future for SEO agencies & consultants
Keep a look out for more in the TalkingLocal series coming soon. We’ve got some key interviews with big personalities from the local search world lined up – so do stay tuned! You can also keep up to date with the latest TalkingLocal videos on our YouTube playlist.
Myles: Hello and welcome to this Installment of ‘TalkingLocal’. In the TalkingLocal series, we put some searching questions to the great and the good of the local search world. Want to know what they’re up to, what motivates them, and what advice they have for other people who are toiling away in the murky world of local search.
Today I’m joined by two great guys that I have the pleasure to get to know on our research inside local webinar series and also through our quarterly expert surveys. Welcome to Matthew Hunt and Dev Basu.
How you guys doing today?
Dev: Great Myles, thanks for having us.
Matthew: Hey Myles, thanks for having us.
Myles: Guys, it’s a real pleasure.
Matt & Dev are both well known in the local search industry. Based in Toronto, they’re regular fixtures in the local search conference circuit and also contributors to the highly regarded local search ranking factor study.
Until recently they both ran separate and successful marketing agencies. Then in March of this year, they combined forces for a third agency to create a super power, which is ‘Powered by Search.com’.
I found this much intriguing and I was about to understand of what motivations were behind it. And that’s what we’re talking about today; the ‘what’, the ‘why’, and the ‘how’ of this merger and what drove these guys running their successful agencies, to come together.
So guys, how long have you both been involved in the local search industry or in the local marketing world? Dev?
Dev: So, I started in SEO back in 2006 and I think my first foray into local was in 2007. I started working with Google Maps and had a background in the Yellow Pages industry, so I started to learn how the flow of data worked in Canada and then finally how it worked work in the States as well, so it’s been since 2007… so it’s been a while.
Myles: Great, and Matt?
Matthew: Hey Myles, I started up in this industry just falling into it – I didn’t mean to end up in it at all. I built my first website in 2007 just so I could sell more Point of Sale terminals so that I could feed me and my family! …but it just snowballed from there… the next thing after building my own websites and realizing there was this whole world out there of local search.
Myles: Great! Excellent, thanks guys. So since you guys started, how was the local search arena changed? What are the most significant changes that you’ve seen in that time? Dev?
Dev: I think it’s a great question, so I mean a lot has changed since 2006, 2007 – the ‘wild wild west’ days of local search. There was a huge uptake in mobile for example, I think in 2007 we had the first Smartphone – like the iPhone came out – I think that was the first generation of it at that point in time. I might be wrong about that, but that really changed the game in terms of people started to use their Smartphones and started looking for things online on a local basis.
Geo location got a lot better – so now even on your laptop, Google’s able to pinpoint you down within 5 or 10 feet of where you really are. The tools got a lot better, so you know you have tools like BrightLocal or WhiteSpark for example. The IYPs got better in terms of their search capabilities and in the amount of data that you have, and I would say finally just the adoption of local search around both implicit and explicit based searches, where the search engines were getting better and better and understanding which queries had local intent, and which ones didn’t for example, really gave birth to a better local search industry.
Because local search did exist before the way we know it today, but it would more about the Yellow Pages sort of world, right? You look at the Local Search Association for example and the work those guys have been doing for example, search engine optimization for local search for example, and I think there are a lot of changes but it’s a very exciting time right now.
Another big change that I can think of is a company like Yext for example, being able to push data on the fly from some of the core directories to the States, and that’s gonna continue happening throughout the rest of the world. We don’t have it yet in Canada, we don’t have it in the UK or Australia or in the other countries that have a fairly mature local search presence yet, but I think that’s the direction it’s headed in.
Myles: Great, excellent answer… and Matt you’re up!…
Matthew: Hey, so I think I agree with just what everything that Dev had to say there. What I think is really interesting, and this is sort of looking at the future of local.
I think really we’ve only scratched the surface of where we want to go with local, you know? I look at my kids today and I’ve got a 6-year old, a 4-year old, and a 2-year old, and I look at them on this iPad, how they’re just zipping around on it like it’s no big deal and I think to myself, “man, this is gonna be the worst device they are ever use” – they’re gonna look back when they’re our age and say “hey, do you remember that toy we used to play with? – the iPad thing?” and so I just imagine where we’re gonna go in the future, where it’s already starting to happen, where you’ll get these real time offers. I mean I just literally can’t wait to the technology gets so good that I’m walking down the street and I’m gonna be in front of some café or bagel shop and I’m gonna get some notification right on my phone in real time about some sort of offer that I can walk in and redeem with my phone at that very moment.
All the Geo-technology that’s getting better and better and better, I think that’s what really exciting – not only just for big businesses but even for the small businesses.
Myles: Okay, that’s great. So you’ve got a 6-year old, a 4-year old and 2-year old… you poor man… your life must be very busy!
Matthew: I know you’re in a thick of that too!
Myles: Yeah, they’re 7, 5 and 3, so I’m ahead of you. Phew! I’m a year ahead of you, I’m a year out of the woods!
Okay, so next question… so you guys have obviously been in the local search game for a long time, you both had independent successful agencies, and as I said earlier, March of this year you came together and consolidated under the Powered by Search brand. What were the primary motivations for coming together? What were the reasons that made you choose to partner up? Both in general, about your businesses specifically, and with each other, and how long had you been talking about it before you took the steps to actually do it?
Dev, you get first please.
Dev: OK, sure. So, we partnered because we wanted to grow better and faster, and avoid making some of the same mistakes we were making individually in our own agencies, you know three heads are better than one and I think that when we were operating in our own agencies, we were running some of the same issues and we talk about some of the same issues as well, so, Matt and I have known each other for long long time and we’d get together for beer and say like, “hey, have you been running into this?” and he’d be like, “yeah, totally I’ve been running into that”, right? And we’d been joking around with each other about possibly working with each other on a closer level for a couple of years now actually.
So we got together last summer and we met our third partner Warren at that point, and we started talking and said, ‘what would happen?’, ‘what would it look like?’, can we imagine a super agency (as you call it Myles), could we have better efficiency?, could we do a better job for our clients for example?, could we grow faster?, could we build training programs for our staff for example?, all these things that we individually had thought of… because we were thinking about what the next couple of years might hold for us, each individually. We were coming cross the same challenges – it was a timed challenge – it was about the fact that we’d have more ideas and time to execute them, and coming together would help us each focus, and kind of divide-and-conquer, so that was one of the main primary drivers of coming together as an agency.
Myles: So, Dev, thanks very much, that’s a great answer.
So now that you’re partnered up together do you find that there’s a less pressure on you now? Would you find that being part of a larger agency with more clients, more staff, and also having partners in the business that you’ve got to work closely with, and run ideas with, does that put more or less pressure on you at work, and also on your private lives as well?
So Matt, why don’t you go for that?
Matthew: Sure, Myles. That’s an excellent question… you know I was concerned a little bit when we were partnering, whether this would work or not. We always say, when you’re running your own show, you’re literally your own boss, and so, it is different. But the fabulous thing that happened is that for me I’ve discovered that this has been the best decision – and I can’t speak for Warren or Dev – but this has been the best decision that I’ve ever made. I’m finding that, even though it takes a little bit more time sometimes to have a meeting to make a decision on SOME items, what I’ve discovered is that I’m making better decisions, you know if I look at this business it’s never been stronger and better, and it’s really, really great to have equals, and bounce things off of… and so, it’s been absolutely amazing, and we can also divide and conquer.
I mean the big thing is, before, there was just not enough time in the day, not enough minutes in the hours, and constantly running out. But now there are three of us, we can say, “OK, what is it that we want to work on?”, and we can just go away and get that done. So this business is just growing so fast and I would imagine it’s gonna grow 10x faster than it ever would if it was just me trying to do it myself.
So, I encourage people to do this wherever possible when it’s right…for them.
Myles: OK, that’s great Matt, thank you. Question for Dev here, having equals in a business, having partners, do you feel that’s improved the way your work, your own understanding, your knowledge, and the efficiency with which you tackle tasks?
Dev: Yeah, absolutely it has. Because, you see in the past it was about, you come up with some ideas, and you wrestle with the pros and the cons in your own mind – and that’s exactly what I use to do – I’d play out scenarios of how a different decision would play out. I think that, as smart as one can be, that often still leads to tunnel vision. You only know what you know and you don’t know what you don’t know, and that’s a huge advantage of having smarter partners like Matt and like Warren, we take those ideas and bounce them off each other, and they often bring a prospective that I would not have had. So it’s about having to complement each other and look at bringing experiences to the table, and not necessarily all of them are always similar – and that’s a good thing in my opinion – because somebody else’s experience that they bring to the table, they add a completely different prospective to it.
So yeah, it made me much more efficient, we’ve done a whole bunch of things, around everything from the way we train, to how we track time, and basically look at how we are generating our line of project for example, whether we’re looking at the financial project aspect of things, or we’re looking at the on-boarding of clients, even things like measuring the happiness of our team we use a tool that basically sends out a survey every week and we can poll people essentially on how happy they are at work, whether they are understanding exactly what the expectations are in terms of their role, where you want to go next, etc etc, and all of those things have been a pooling of ideas – that’s definitely made me as an individual much, much more… not really knowledgeable… but I know that these two guys have my back, just as well as I’ve got theirs.
Myles: Great, that’s excellent. Dev, you mentioned your clients there – how do think your clients have benefited from the merger itself? – Matt, I got a question for you on the second, so Dev if you want to answer that, that would be great.
Dev: OK, so I think our clients have really benefited from the merger in a couple of different ways.
So, coming back to the partners in general, one of the things that’s different about Powered by Search is that we allow our clients to work directly with the specialists that are on their accounts. Unlike other agencies, we don’t have an account manager that’s essentially layered management between the account and the team that’s actually working on it – the people who are doing paid search, local search, citations, link building, whatever that might look like – and when we were our own single agencies, the sort of ‘head of knowledge’, the ‘head chief’ was always either Matt, myself, or Warren, but now what’s happened is, we are able to leverage each other. So if a client for example, for whatever reason, needs to talk to one of the partners, they now have two other people besides myself, to be able to talk to, or reach out to.
That’s led to a lot of different advantages, even in the programs we’re putting together, so for example, Warren’s company brings a great deal of expertise around website design & development that Powered by Search didn’t previously have. Matt’s got great programs around social, which Powered by Search didn’t previously do. So there’s new skill sets that we’re bringing in as well, so we are able to offer much more comprehensive solutions to clients, where we’re actually building out plans and programs for them that are multiyear programs, so we’re saying ‘let’s play the long game’ and here’s what you need to get there, and it’s a-step-by-step program that looks at acquisition, behavior and outcomes for your business. We’re not thinking campaigns anymore, we’re thinking about how do we partner for the long term and grow digital assets for our clients basically, that benefit them in the long term.
Myles: So by coming together you’ve obviously pooled your knowledge, your resources and you’ve kind of build out your competencies, which is great. So having more ‘SEO muscle’ in the agency, has that helped you to land a bigger client?, or to retain clients by extending what you can offer them?, to essentially affect your bottom line with existing clients?
Let’s go to Matt with that…
Mattew: Hey Myles, yeah that’s a great question and I will extend a little bit on what Dev was saying there, which is prior, when we were working with our clients, we were working on exactly what Dev said, which was campaigns – and now we’re working on marketing plans. We’re talking two, three years and sometimes even playing with five-year digital marketing plans.
We’re able to do that now because we’ve been able to pool all of the resources together, and offer a full marketing plan. In the past, maybe you were just consulting for the local division, for an enterprise, but that may not be the case anymore. Now we’re doing their website development, landing page, AdWords, their social media campaigns on Facebook, video marketing, video creation, as well as the local… I mean it’s all connected but when you do that, we can literally help them build a huge brand and a huge digital asset online. And we can then at that point start talking about marketing plans that are two or three years long, not just a 6-month plan or a 12-month plan, or even just a project that is for, you know, a period of time. So, it’s much more exciting for us as well.
Myles: OK, great, excellent. Thanks Matt that’s a great answer. I’ve just got a few more questions for you guys…
So thinking back to when it you both ran your independent agencies, going back to the time when you started your own agencies and you were kind of building up… knowing what you know now about the partnership and the power that that brings you, what would you have done differently when setting up your agencies first time around?
Matthew: Yeah, great question.
Myles: Matt, why don’t you get first, and I’ll go to Dev after.
Matthew: yeah, so you know, I learned a ton by partnering with these guys and I guess even just running the agency. I guess if there’s someone else starting an agency like we are, or if I was to start over again and I could talk to myself, probably the number one thing I’d tell myself would be to “charge more to clients” (laughs), you know and build more value into the business, and think more longer term.
We just talked about these longer marketing plans, like 2 or 3 years, and we didn’t think of it back then – I don’t think anybody did – it was more of a consulting type basis and project-to-project type work, but today, digital is not just one channel anymore, there’s literally hundreds of channels off that digital sprout that need help with – and really it’s growing. I just wish I had known how much of value and how much we were helping companies, I think I undervalued what the ROI was for companies, so that would be the conversation I’d be having with myself – charge more and bring more value to the table that way.
Myles: OK, great. Matt, thank you very much, and Dev?
Dev: So, I think going back, and if I were to do it all over again, what I would’ve done is got out of the building more and met with clients and growing relationships more that way.
I think I learned a lot more in the terms of the last four or five years, the soft skills that are associated with knowing a client’s plans about their own business. Because depending on the size of the client you’re working with, you might be meeting directly with the owner of the business, going all the way up to a ‘C level’ person, or maybe a senior VP of marketing for example, but everybody’s got their own vision and I think that one of the things we could have done better, and as an SEO community overall is, we know on a tactical level what needs to be done, yes you need to have claimed listings, yes you need to build citations, yes you need lots of reviews… so we do a lot of preaching I think, overall with our clients businesses. But I think it’s equally important to sit down with them and say, ‘Where do you want your business to go?’, and then work backwards from there to say ‘here are the things that need to happen’, and ‘here are some options that you can pick’ basically.
If we did that, basically and if we did that, the approach could have been so much more collaborative as opposed to more recommendation-audit-recommendation-audit-recommendation – that sort of back and forth. And often we wonder why as consultants when we give really hard-core good recommendations they don’t always get implemented, and I always go back to, ‘was it the right implementation for the right client at the right time?’, and could you have given a better recommendation had you known what the client wanted in the first place for example?
The second thing I probably would’ve done is invested in a training program. Right from the start we did a lot of ad-hoc type of training, but one thing I’ve learned from Matt is the power of doing videos for example, so anytime your teaching anything, record it, do a screen-share of it, ideally do a transcription of it as well, and then start organizing that in terms of training so the value of building digital assets, not only in websites or copywriting or link building but also in training as well would’ve been a huge asset of building a knowledge base for the agency as it started ready to grow.
Myles: Great thanks Dev. This next question is strictly for Matt. So Matt, before you joined forces with Powered by Search, you ran your agency that was called Small Business Online Coach. Now that’s obviously quite a specific brand name and it shouts about the coaching aspect of the service you might provide, but you were a fully fledged agency providing a whole range of search marketing services. Having a name like Small Business Online Coach and it’s sounding quite specific; did you ever come up against issues with clients, maybe misunderstanding what you’re offering? Or having to sell the wider services a bit harder because maybe the brand name didn’t quite match up with the range of services that you offered?
Matthew: Yeah, yeah, totally Myles. It’s interesting, when I started Small Business Online Coach, it was literally supposed to be more about coaching, but what happened was I started coaching with some small businesses and at the end of the day they were more like, ‘You know what, can you just do this for me?’, you know so it turned into more of an agency type thing.
But interestingly enough, like you said as we started to grow I even had some larger clients that we started to retain and the name started actually becoming a problem – and what I mean by problem is that they didn’t want to be necessarily associated with our name – they wanted it kept quiet. Sometimes when you built the website, sometimes they didn’t want it at the bottom (sometimes they give you a credit like ‘website designed and built by…’). They didn’t want that put down there so I started shortening the name to actually ‘SPOC’, but even then they were worried that it was linking off to something that said “small business” instead of being sort of enterprise associated with, so name does matter, so if there was someone out there talking about creating an agency, you really need to put a lot more thought into the name and to be honest with you if I could go back, I probably would never chosen that name at all. It’s just like I said, I had no plans on being in this industry, I just stumbled into it by accident so that’s definitely something you want to put more thought into – and Powered by Search is a great name, that’s fantastic name.
Myles: Great, thanks Matt. One final question for you, stemming on from Matt’s answer then, in terms of thinking he was going to be providing advice for small businesses and they turned around at the end of the day and said ‘can you just do it for us?’.
Obviously the agency consultancy market is thriving right now, a lot of SMB businesses don’t have the time, the head space, or the inclination to really understand the detail that’s required in local search to really see it forward.
Do you ever see a time when small businesses are going to become more empowered, where it’s going to be much simpler and easier to do it themselves, where agencies and consultants will struggle to survive as a middle man? Or do you think the complexity of the local search is going to be around for some time, and that the agency-consultancy model is there forevermore?
Dev, why don’t you go first on that one?
Dev: I think the complexity is going be there for a while now. It’s been every year we see one of these ‘SEO is dead, long live SEO’ type articles. I’ve been seeing them since 2006 when I entered the industry and every year there’s a counter article that saying, ‘as long as there’s Search Engines, and people who use Search Engines, there will be a need for SEO’, I think local search is a lot like that because even with tools which savvy business owners use – such as yours for example – or they just pay Yext for example to just build listings, there are some things that I think that business owners will still need a lot of help with, like how to solicit reviews for example.
One of the things we noticed a lot actually, when we put call tracking on our SMB clients’ websites for example, is that they often need help even with things like sales training, or even just picking up the phone for that matter. So there’s a lot of areas around marketing and sales, let alone local search and the complexity of that which I think SMB business owners need help with. And often I’ve noticed in our capacity as a marketing consultant, we’re doing a lot more than just local search for them, and it’s often getting on the phone and coaching them about how they should even be handling a sales call for example, or an inbound inquiry. I think that’s where the value is, so the value is a combination of a practical value, so your perceived value is basically a combination of your practical value and intrinsic value, and the practical value that we drive for our clients is, yes we make the phone ring, we fill out the lead generation forms for SMB clients, they are able to get a new stream of business and revenue from that, but the intrinsic value being able to partner with an agency that cares about your business, understands you industry, and is capable of providing marketing advice and consulting, that expands well beyond the ‘stated deliverables’ that we set out to do. That’s why we do the coaching, that’s why we do the educating for example. It’s also why clients stay with us for such a long time to see that intrinsic, not quantifiable, but very qualitative type of aspect of ‘we got their backs and we’re part of their team.’
Myles: OK right, and one final question for Matt. Matt, if you’re giving advice – if you give one key piece of advice to anyone starting a small agency and wanted to grow it – what would that advice be for them?
Matthew: So to grow the agency?… so it’s a great question and you know, I’m a systems guy and so I believe that if you do something more than once, they need to turn it into some sort of training or system. It doesn’t matter if it’s for their own team or for their clients’ education; I’m really really big on that. So we do that all the time here and I’ve been doing that for a long time and it’s extremely effective for both.
I was just making, I don’t know how many videos I made this morning, like three or four? It’s a process that we do, instead of just saying it to one person individually, I make it a little bit more general and put some rules around and put it out so that we can duplicate ourselves. You only have so much time in a day, so anytime you can, try and do it.
It’s the same with clients; not only do I find it effective being able to use the same video over and over again but it’s also good for them because they don’t necessarily quite understand how all this stuff works and sometimes this simple two-minute screen share video will do that for you. So that’s probably my most valuable tool I have to say in growing an agency! – is using screen capture videos and creating systems – probably one of many tips that we could offer as growing agency.
Myles: Matt, that’s great – yeah, we use a lot of videos here internally also. So guys, I have taken up a lot of your day. Thank you very much for answering my questions. I do appreciate it.
Everyone, thank you so much for watching this latest installment of TalkingLocal.
Have a great day wherever you are. Thank you.