What It’s Like to Launch a Business During a Crisis with Andrew Cock-Starkey

launch a business during a crisis

Andrew Cock-Starkey was an in-house SEO expert for a company in Cambridge, UK, when he launched Optimisey, a monthly SEO MeetUp where he brought in other experts to talk shop with 60 to 80 participants every month.

After each event, participants would come up to him and ask if he’d do SEO for their company. It happened enough times that he finally launched Optimisey, the SEO consultancy, quitting his job and taking on clients – about one month before COVID-19 became a global reality. 

On this episode of Agency Ahead, he talked with Garrett about what that’s been like.

The highlights:

  • (1:38) On the benefits of running events before launching a consultancy.
  • (8:55) On communicating with clients about Covid-19.
  • (10:23) On remaining agile during a crisis.
  • (16:42) SEO strategies and tactics.
  • (21:32) Businesses helping businesses. 
  • (24:50) A strategy for building a strong SEO consultancy that can weather a crisis.
  • (26:52) Andrew’s causes.

Just want to skim through the biggest takeaways? Here they are:

Want more clients? Launch a (virtual) event.

Andrew will be the first to tell you, he didn’t launch his events as some sort of strategy to gather clients and get a name for himself prior to striking out on his own. 

“I’m a devotee of brightonSEO, kind of the trip to Mecca for SEO people in the UK. I went to that event and thought, I would really like this sort of thing in Cambridge, just a little bit closer. Rather than wait for someone else to do it, I wonder if I could do it?”

He had the advantage of a few friends who could come and kick things off, speaking about SEO until he could gather some additional guests. 

“It’s addictive. The buzz of running events is really fun, especially when it goes really well.”

Even if Andrew didn’t plan it, he had potential clients approaching him for a very long time, clients who he initially resisted but eventually took on.

Which means if you haven’t launched your consultancy yet or don’t have as many clients as you’d like, launching an event might be an inroad into that. Of course, doing it live would have to wait until everything is back to normal, but this might be a good time to experiment with doing webinars or virtual events while you’re waiting. At the least, you could make some valuable contacts who might come and speak at your live events later. 

Remaining agile during a crisis

The crisis hasn’t impacted all of Andrew’s clients in the same way, so he’s had to approach them all just a little bit differently.

“Some are saying we’re going to have to postpone things. We have no idea what’s going on. We’re not really sure if we’re going to be able to keep the business open or how we’re going to pay all of our staff. They’re kind of in panic mode, so right, fine, I’m backing off, I’m here when you need me. And that’s what they need. They need you to be okay with that and to get out of the way.”

Then there are the clients who have almost benefitted from the crisis, because they offered delivery or sell some of the things that are really hot right now, like home gym equipment.

“Some of them who run big events of their own and had to shut those down for a bit actually have more marketing budget than they’d normally have so they’re like, you know all those SEO things you had for us to do? 

All the staff are sitting at home waiting for 101 jobs to do, they still want to get paid. All those tech SEO things we previously set way back on the back burner, that we weren’t going to get to for six months? Let’s get on with those. Can we give you more budget? And I’m like yep, absolutely, let’s go.”

Andrew stresses that it’s all about taking things on a case-by-case basis. 

“Pivot, be agile, and see what customers want.”

SEO strategies and tactics

Andrew stresses an individualized strategy based on what your client businesses are capable of doing at this time. For some clients, it will be all about taking advantage of the downtime to hit the aforementioned tech SEO backlog.

For others, it’s all about GMB. 

“Helping local businesses with things like, right, if you’re doing deliveries, if you’re still open, what can we put [on your GMB page]? Can we put up a post or some Q&As, or adjust your business name on your GMB listing? Those things are straightforward and simple to do.”

Andrew cautions SEO professionals to keep their priorities straight. 

“It’s not like there’s going to be some huge check [for some of these things] for me as a consultant, but if it helps keep that business going and helps all the people in that community find somewhere that actually does have food in stock and can deliver toilet roll or whatever the random thing is people are stockpiling that week, it’s helpful for them.”

An example of businesses helping businesses

Andrew told the story of a business in his town called the Cambridge Fruit Company

“They’ve been absolutely batted, because a huge part of their business was selling fruit to corporations. They did all these sort of free fruit Friday things for offices. Now everybody’s working from home so the offices aren’t ordering that stuff anymore. They were looking seriously like they were going to go under.”

He discusses how the company had to pivot rapidly from B2B sales to B2C sales. 

“Smaller amounts, smaller boxes, but wider deliveries.”

Then something amazing happened. The owner talked about his struggles on Twitter. 

“A big bank trader in New York, an Englishman who relocated over there, ordered 500 boxes and said, don’t deliver them to New York. Deliver them to NHS workers. Bankers get a bad rap all the time, but this guy obviously has money to spend, saw that a business was struggling, and with that, did a good thing.”

He describes how this single action had an intense ripple effect. Lots of people began ordering extra boxes for NHS workers.

“That’s a whole bunch of logistics for that company to deal with, but now they’ve had to take on more staff. They’ve had to take on a new assistant just to deal with all the admin of these extra orders coming in.”

Cambridge Fruit Company then reached out to other local businesses. For example, they partnered with a local butcher and a local charity group that was delivering to children that relied on schools being open to get enough food during the day. They’re now putting together fruit and meat boxes and delivering them to those families.

Never miss an opportunity to pay it forward, because you never know where that good deed will go.

How to build a strong SEO consultancy that can weather a crisis

If there’s anything Andrew has learned from launching an SEO consultancy just in time for the COVID-19 crisis, it’s that specialists don’t always win. 

“Diversity in my client set has been helpful. Looking forward, that’s something I want to keep locked into my client set, that kind of diversity in which kind of sectors or which kind of areas I cover.”

He also stresses a diversity of skill sets. 

“People that work in SEO, we’re really good at lots of different things. We’re good at technical stuff, we’re good at content, we’re good at research, we’re good at research. Lots of people can write Javascript, or they can write PHP. When the chips are down, or you’re in trouble, and people aren’t spending money on SEO, they might be spending money on other stuff.”

If you can turn your skills to the things people are actually looking to spend money on you’ll tend to survive, even when everyone else seems to be drowning.

What's your right now cause?

Andrew is very passionate about supporting the NHS. He also wants people to support local businesses. 

“Think about whether you want them to be alive on the other side of that crisis. Do you really need to get that thing from Amazon, or can you phone out to your local bookstore and get them to send it to you? Can you support the businesses that really need it the most?”

He notes big corporations will certainly feel a pinch, but they will probably survive. The local businesses might not.

“So support your local businesses where you can.”

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