Mike is one of the smartest guys I know in SEO. Please thank him for taking the time to share his story!
I’ve been doing SEO for about seven years now and for the first four I was pretty good at it, but I didn’t take it or the jobs I had in it too seriously. After all, in my mind, I was a rapper first; I just used the development skills I happened to have to make money to live between tours.
There were certainly a few awesome people that I worked with early on who I learned the ropes from by osmosis. In fact I still keep in contact with them today.
I learned what I know about sales by watching David Salinas (CEO of Digital Surgeons). Joshua Giardino made me realize my C++ skills were still relevant and introduced me to PHP and advanced SEO. Vedran Tomic (SEO Manager at Basement Systems) introduced me to the marketing side of SEO. However all of these guys were my peers in these early roles, not my bosses. And while I always aimed to be good at my job, my general attitude didn’t allow me to respect it.
By the standard definition of the term “mentor,” I don’t know that any of the people I want to talk about would see themselves as my mentor. That is to say they weren’t the after school special “let’s meet up at the Boys & Girls club” type of mentorships. My mentors came in the form of people that I respected that were a few steps ahead of me and challenged me to grow. Those people were Brian Cosgrove (of TPG Direct) and Tony Effik (of R/GA).
I probably met Brian at the right time in my career. I was in the transition of finally taking SEO seriously in my then 3-month old role at Razorfish. While working at Razorfish was awesome and Sean Stahlman, Josh Tuscan, Thanh Duong and Ron Sansone were all incredibly instrumental to my success there were certainly times when I was made to feel like a second class citizen (through no fault of those I’ve just listed) because I was a contractor. For example, I was saddled with the task of classifying a 3 million link MajesticSEO export so I made a script to do just that and presented it to the team only to be told “that’s awesome, but who told you to do that?” and “building tools isn’t a good utilization of your time.” So there was little encouragement to innovate which proved to be an issue for me.
Brian let me know I was actually on the right track and pushed me a little harder in that direction. I saw him as someone that was farther along in what I was trying to do. He knows code, he knows analytics inside and out, and he is respected as a legit thought leader. I’d reach out to him for specific direction on things I was doing or moves I wanted to make and he encouraged me to work a little harder, go a little bigger and all along the way introduced me to awesome people in his network.
In my SEO career I’d say Tony Effik is the closest thing I’ve had to a standard mentor. He’s probably shown the most interest in me reaching my potential. At Publicis Modem, Tony was the SVP of Strategy & Analytics and after my rocky onboarding (the person that hired me quit before I started and the person who would replace them also moved on 3 days later) he became my boss. Although our time working together was relatively short (6 months, I think?) I learned more from him in that time that I have from any one person in my career thus far.
He’d question me from a position of respect and knowledge. Although I was the SEO subject matter expert in those conversations he helped me focus more on the bigger picture and how we could get there using SEO. I was able to learn from his experiences and come up with new approaches.
I remember him sitting me down to discuss the ambiguity of keywords and me being so confident in the standard SEO segmentation of searcher intent (transactional, informational, navigational) almost dismissing him at first. Then he threw a keyword at me that I couldn’t easily classify and I thought to myself shit, maybe this guy is on to something.
Tony would lend me books off his shelf and encourage me to step my game up. Not in a condescending way, but in a take-this-and-change-the-game way. Whether it was intentional or not he pushed me to innovate. Being an artist this is something I’d naturally do, but I was always afraid to be wrong or go against the conventional thinking.
The best way I can describe it is Tony taught me to do stunts without a net.
Ultimately, his challenging my ideas is what would plant the seeds that would grow into some of the best ideas I have contributed to my client work and as well as the search community, but it only worked so well because we had mutual trust and respect.
Now more than ever I understand that those are the two most key things in any employer/employee relationship. I look to give the people that report to me now that same respect. I don’t believe in micromanagement, I believe in giving them the latitude to reach their potential and I just want to help by tweaking their approaches and challenging them to think bigger. They are all subject matter experts in the respective roles and I tell them that there isn’t much more they can learn from me in the ways of their specific subject matter, but what they can learn is how to do stunts without a net.
I would be remiss to not include the other people who have contributed to my success in the ways of sharing wisdom and a helping hand such as Rand Fishkin, Tom Critchlow both of whom were instrumental in showing me the ropes and giving me a co-sign before they really knew me. Also, of course, I should give a shout out to my original mentors, my parents whose sage advice has been critical in the last year or so.
And I’d like to thank everyone I’ve mentioned because without them, who really knows where I’d be right now.