SIMON SCHNIEDERS, FOUNDER, BLUE ARRAY
Thanks in no small part to social media, we hear all about the highs of entrepreneurship. A rose-tinted cocktail of award wins, eye-watering growth, and ironclad optimism.
We all need positivity. Now, more than ever. But by sweeping the lows of running a business under an emotional carpet, are we doing ourselves and aspiring entrepreneurs more harm than good? And are leaders shying away from speaking about their own mental health because of the responsibility on their shoulders?
“Success is a lousy teacher”. That’s what Bill Gates said, and after enjoying his not-so-fair share of it, he should know. But also, he’s right. A non-stop sugar-coating of entrepreneurship will leave budding business leaders with unrealistic expectations – and rotting teeth.
That’s why it’s so refreshing (and important) to speak to people like Simon Schnieders. As the Founder and CEO of the UK’s largest specialist SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) agency, Blue Array, and the author of ‘Mastering In-House SEO’, he knows all about success too. But it’s Simon’s real, raw reflections on the challenges he’s overcome – both personally and professionally – which mean he has much more to offer entrepreneurs than higher positions on Google.
RISING THROUGH THE RANKS
Simon first turned heads in the SEO world when he joined Yell, the online business directory, in the summer of 2007. In less than a year, he helped grow the Yell.com SEO traffic to record levels, taking its Google indexed content numbers from 250k to over 3.5m, and increasing its non-brand searches by 300%.
Then, in 2008, it was onto The Mail Online, where Simon headed up the site’s overall SEO strategy and took it past The New York Times as the world’s largest English-speaking newspaper website.
“It was fairly simple back then,” Simon told us, “It was essentially getting the editor to understand that we need to tweak headlines ever so slightly to meet users’ needs in terms of what they were typing into search engines.
“The first time I said they’d have to do that, the editor basically told me ‘you’re not going to bloody tell me how to change my headlines, get out of my office.’ So, we did it by stealth, taking someone from the news floor into our SEO team, training them up in SEO, and then pushing them back out into the sausage machine. Lo and behold, they started generating more page views than anyone in the business. I was welcomed back into the editor’s office with open arms after that.”
INTO THE BLUE
These in-house roles, including a similarly successful three-year stint at Zoopla, gave Simon the credibility he needed to realise his long-term ambition of starting his own agency. And after over a decade at the coalface of SEO, Simon understood the frustrations clients can face with traditional agencies, all too well.
So, when he launched his agency, Blue Array, in 2015, he branded it a ‘consulgency’ – combining the individual attention you’d expect from a consultant, with the scale you’d expect from an agency.
Blue Array was (and still is) “obsessively focused” on nailing one discipline, SEO, and Simon believes the move from generalist to specialist will define successful agencies and advisory businesses for years to come.
CREAKING JOINTS. GROWING PAINS
The prior knowledge of his market did little to prepare Simon for the challenges of running an agency, and he pulled no punches as he shared them with us:
“It’s incredibly painful running an agency. Particularly if you’re doing it bootstrapped at the beginning, which is the way I did it. So no funding, no support at all in the first few years really, getting new clients and growing organically.
“In the early days of the business I was working 24/7. I never switched off because you’re doing everything. You’re doing accounts, payroll, debt collection, taking on new business, running the client accounts yourself as well – it’s a horrible experience. There are times I’ve questioned my sanity at really high-pressure times, because some of the pressures you’re under, they’re serious.
“I think there’s a lot of glossing over how painful things really are, in this ‘Instagram world’ that we live in now where everything’s shiny, everyone’s having a brilliant time running their business, and entrepreneurs are so successful. But they never talk about how incredibly painful it is. And in your startup to scale-up journey, that’s when it hits you most.
“The one thing to realise is you will grow through that pain.”
“When you’re experiencing it, you’re going through another growth spurt. Eventually, when you get pain, you’ll welcome it. And even though you might be mentally exhausted and feel dreadful, you’ll be able to say I know where I am, and I know why I’m feeling like this.”
RUNNING A BUSINESS TAKES METTLE
Something Simon showed he had in abundance in his earlier years, before he began his SEO journey.
“I’ve been sober for almost two decades now,” he told us, “Which is phenomenal when I think back to the grips of alcoholism. The height of it was in my mid-thirties. I just couldn’t go through a day without drinking, it was impossible for me. At the very depths of it I couldn’t distinguish between day and night anymore, it was a complete blur.
“But, it was painful enough for me to want to change. That’s critical to alcoholism and any addiction really. It’s no good people telling you that you’ve got a problem. There has to be some kind of trigger that will make you seek change no matter what the cost. For me, that cost was to go into Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and go through a 12-step programme there, which would have horrified me at any time previously.
“I went through a spiritual programme and I still have a spiritual anchor today. That can mean different things for different people, but for me, it’s the idea of a power greater than myself. Some people would call that God, but it’s an anchor for me, and something that says we’re not in a whirly mass of nothing, heading towards nothingness. There’s more out there than that.
“Having that anchor has really helped me through the worst times when you’re running a business. For some people, that anchor might be family, or another cause – but it’s been absolutely critical, just to have something that has allowed me to not just do this for myself, but something higher than that as well.”
THE LESSON THAT SHAPED HIS LEADERSHIP
Simon found out a lot about himself during that transition to sobriety, and you can trace one of his most powerful realisations forward to how he leads Blue Array today.
“I found the happiest I am in life is through altruism – giving to others without expecting anything in return”, he said, “So, when I was in AA, sponsoring people and helping other alcoholics to get sober, that was the happiest I was in life. When I exit the business, that’s my plan, to go back into AA and look for prospects I can help get sober, and to get back in the art studio and spend time painting again.”
This seed planted in Simon has flourished into a people-over-everything culture at Blue Array.
Currently employing 42 people, with plans to grow to 80+ in the next few years, the business includes roles like “Talent & Happiness Manager”, with five values (Focused, Collaborative, Honest, Confident and Supportive) steering and defining everything Blue Array stands for.
Simon feels a deep commitment to his team’s learning and development, calling it “critically important”, and over time, this commitment has extended to the wider industry too. The Blue Array Academy offers online SEO courses and certifications with stellar reviews, and in his Amazon best-selling book, ‘Mastering In-House SEO’, Simon brought together 26 leading in-house SEO experts to share their strategies and tips; creating an indispensable guide for in-house professionals and SEO agencies alike. Now, he plans to release two more books in Q1 of 2021.
Simon also shares his business expertise and lessons with other leaders as a mentor at The Mayors International Business Program, Seedcamp and other incubator/accelerator programmes. And he’s an angel investor and adviser at ClickMechanic.com, and other early stage businesses.
When COVID began, Simon was determined to hold on to every member of his team, no matter how choppy the waters got. He managed that, plus he topped up his furloughed employees’ pay to 100% without fail. Now, the vast majority of employees who joined in the early years have EMIs in the business – rewarding them for their help in reaching Simon’s “horizon event”: an acquisition by a larger agency or group to take them to the next stage of growth.
Simon speaks openly of his plans (as he does every topic), saying he realised it would be the best move for the team for him to step away from operations after “some soul searching around the depths of COVID”.
“I know myself,” he told us, “I’m not the best person to lead a business from an operational point of view when we go from 40 to 80. That takes a different kind of senior leader. I like spending time talking to clients, getting involved with business development and the creative side of marketing and running an agency.”
Right now, Blue Array is sitting pretty as the UK’s largest specialist SEO agency.
Turnover went comfortably over £2m again in 2020 despite COVID, with 100% growth over the next couple of years and £1m EBITDA in their sights. And by welcoming an ex-Google industry leader as Managing Director in October 2020 to take up the mantle, Simon’s made sure he’ll be leaving the operational side of the business in spectacularly safe hands.