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Bill Sebald on How He Built His Agency Like a Rock Band

Bill Sebald has been doing SEO since before SEO was cool (but come on, was it ever really not?!). With over two decades logged in the industry, he knows search like the frets on his guitar — and his agency Greenlane has the result to prove it.KdSXFFfE

Bill has worked with organizations like Toys ‘R’ Us, Calvin Klein, and the NBA to solve the problems inherent to modern search. Even with all this success under his belt, Bill is still the most real, down-to-earth, friendly guy who seems as likely to carry an ego as he’d be to carry a Bieber album.

I caught up with my friend Bill to talk about starting your own marketing agency, when to take leaps, and when he knew he truly “arrived.”

Greenlane started as a sole proprietorship. Lots of people who might be working for another company could be thinking, “Well, I could do consulting.” What was it that allowed you to take that risk?

You know, I just decided it was time. There was no real moment where I said, “Hey, this is the perfect timing.”

It’s like having a baby. There’s never a perfect time to ever have a child – you just need to say, “I want to do it, I’m going to make it work, and I’m going to love making it work.”

From there, I was fueled by adrenaline.  I had so many opinions on what I would do better if I ran my own show, so I decided to put my money where my mouth was.

What do you think your biggest challenge was in saying goodbye to the corporate job and doing it on your own?

I found there’s a huge difference between running a department at an agency and being an entrepreneur. When I started, I didn’t understand how to set up a company properly — you’re responsible for everything, from HR tasks to taxes.

It’s a challenge to wrap your arms around all these new responsibilities while maintaining a quality service offering. It was quite a challenge.

But it worked. You took Greenlane from two people to a team of 15. What was the moment when you said to yourself, “We’ve arrived”?

That moment came when we started to get referrals from our current clients. We have very smart clients, some with great internal marketing teams. When they’re willing to refer you out, that feels good.

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What do you think differentiates Greenlane today?

My partner and I came from the big agency world. We looked at some of the things we liked, and some of things we thought were broken. Greenlane is the result of cutting out the things we didn’t like.

My partner and I came from the big agency world. We looked at some of the things we liked, and some of things we thought were broken. Greenlane is the result of cutting out the things we didn’t like.

I think a lot of agencies lean towards giving the same deliverables to all their clients because it’s manageable.  It’s easier and scalable. But we don’t do it that way.

Each company is unique, with different needs, challenges and competitors. A one-size-fits-all approach rarely drives success. We believe in true customization and partnerships. We choose to be very client-centric and merge with them like true consultants would.

A one-size-fits-all approach rarely drives success. We believe in true customization and partnerships. We choose to be very client-centric and merge with them like true consultants would.

Another differentiator is that we’re a data-first company. To really be data-first, you need to have a fantastic understanding of analytics. You need to be able to live by the numbers and find the stories in between. You can’t just think about rankings; you’ve got to think about what that traffic’s going to do when it gets to the website.

Does it hit business goals? Is it achieving its expected purpose in the funnel? Our analytics channel is as big as any channel in our agency.

What do you think a lot of agencies are missing in their strategy?

Unfortunately I think many agencies are missing strategy altogether.  It’s hard to sell a strategy to a client, especially in a channel like SEO, where we’ve been very tactical since birth. But it’s getting noisier out there; without a flexible plan, it’s hard to hit those home runs.

Also, some agencies haven’t come around to thinking of CRO as part of their offering, especially in the SEO channel. I think that’s the natural progression SEOs need to follow, especially as Google keeps maturing.

Some agencies haven’t come around to thinking of CRO as part of their offering, especially in the SEO channel. I think that’s the natural progression SEOs need to follow, especially as Google keeps maturing.

To understand intent of the query, they’re clearly paying attention to what the searcher sees after the click. This means SEOs now need to think about usability and experience. CRO is just a natural channel for any agency that ties themselves to their clients’ ROI.

What do you think the aversion’s been to doing that?

The SEO playbook has always been very much about tactics.  Perfect for those left-brained people. I think when you start thinking holistically about site experience, it’s a completely different mindset, and I think it’s not comfortable for everybody to merge the right and left brain.

It’s not really a new storyline though. I believe SEO is constantly evolving. When you look at its timeline, we’ve never gotten a break. Once upon a time SEO was a technical practice. All we were doing was talking about how we can get spiders through the site better. And then suddenly, we had to introduce link building and content strategies. Merging UX is just another rung on the ladder of evolution.

When working with clients, is there a kind of team you prefer, or have found to be the most successful?

We prefer a team that’s actually willing to be engaged. We don’t want to be a company that just throws things over the fence. Been there, done that, not interested in that anymore. We want to be with the companies that are very hands-on, and engaged when we’re having conversations.

We prefer a team that’s actually willing to be engaged. We don’t want to be a company that just throws things over the fence. We want to be with the companies that are very hands-on, and engaged when we’re having conversations.

Sometimes we’ll meet with companies where the point person was tasked with search marketing, even though they couldn’t care less about it. We try to sniff that out, and really vet the prospects to make sure we can have a good partnership.  We’re lucky in that we can be picky. Just like our prospects interview us, we interview them as well.  That’s a wonderful change of pace from my big agency days.

You launched Greenlane twice. What made the second time more successful than the first?

It was really the discipline. bill1It was the idea of putting together a more cohesive business plan, because I didn’t have one the first time I launched Greenlane as a sole proprietorship. It was investing in better mentors — from lawyers to business coaches.  I learn from my mistakes though, and this time partnered with a brilliant marketer I’ve known professionally for years.  I knew he had skills where I didn’t.

A previous CEO of mine once professed at an earnings call that he “hired people who were smarter than him.”  That resonated then, and still does today. Plus frankly, I’ve come to realize I’m not a solo artist.  I like having a band to bounce things around with.  That’s a lot more satisfying for me.

How did you guys know when two people wouldn’t be enough to hold down all the work that was coming your way?

Too many sleepless nights, coupled with too many interesting clients that we didn’t want to say no to. We realized we needed to expand, and so we started to bring on people that were incredibly like-minded, and open this band up to other musicians, if you will.

I often refer to our team as a “supergroup,” teaming up the best players, with unique skills, and varied experiences.

As you grew, what were some major changes that you had to come to terms with?

I’m a bit of a control freak. Giving up that control was hard, but common sense prevailed. I believe in the people on the team, so it only made sense to let go.

There’s only so many hours in a day, and letting go actually gave me more time to focus on what I was good at.

How do you foster a culture where people can provide feedback and thought leadership?

You need to make sure that you communicate what kind of company you want to have, and what the expectations are.

When we’re hiring people, I always ask, “Do you have that entrepreneurial spirit? What kind of things do you like to build? What kind of things would you want to do if you had the chance to shape a company?”

People that have good answers are the kind of people that are really attractive to me. It’s like a rock band, where everyone shapes the ultimate appearance and output.

One of the biggest investments we make is training. We want everyone to be the best they can be. We put a heavy focus on internal education.  We’re not just growing Greenlane, we’re also growing people’s professional careers.  Keith and I are really proud being a part of that.


It’s a safe bet that Bill and the fine folks at Greenlane will be at the cutting edge of search for a long time, providing the customized service they’re known for, as the field grows. With industry-wide changes coming as fast as they are, we can all learn a little something from that commitment to adaptation.

Yesterday it was content; tomorrow it’ll be something else. But whatever comes down the pipe, we’ll be looking to industry leaders like Bill to keep on innovating.

Make sure to check out my interview with Wil Reynolds too — we discuss his history with search marketing, and his love for the city of Philadelphia.

3 Answers from Wil Reynolds on SEO Skills & Hiring Talented Marketers

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