We chat to Simon Dalley, Rachel Weinhold and Hannah Weinhold, the three directors of SEO agency GrowTraffic.
GrowTraffic has had certain distinct phases of development, which relate to when the three directors joined the business. So we decided to get the perspectives of the three directors, in order to really understand the story of this award-winning seo agency.
Please explain who you are, what your business is, and what it does/aims to achieve?
SD: I’m Simon Dalley and I established GrowTraffic as my freelance business in 2009. I’ve been working as a marketer for the last twenty-ish years. GrowTraffic is a full-service digital marketing agency that has a focus on delivering a content-driven approach to search engine optimisation.
We’re very Ronseal – it does what it says on the tin – we grow traffic to businesses websites, which is targeted and helps to convert customers.
We’re specialists at a long term approach to marketing that helps businesses strategically take a sizeable chunk of the impression share in their industry.
I love to work with businesses that have the ambition and long-term commitment to become market leaders. I know I can work magic with those types of businesses.
RW: I’m Rachel Weinhold, aged 39, and I’m also a Director of GrowTraffic Ltd.
GrowTraffic is a search marketing agency based in Lancashire and Yorkshire. We help our clients to find more business via their online profiles. We are also focused on building a business that works for people and people want to work for.
HW: And I am Hannah Weinhold, another of the directors of GrowTraffic. I usually say we are a digital marketing agency that works to help businesses grow online. We specialise in elevating products and services in crowded markets.
SD: As a marketing agency, we should probably all tell the same story here. But it is interesting to see how we each perceive the business differently. I suppose that reflects our roles and the business’ history and evolution.
What time do your days usually start and end?
SD: My day usually starts between 5:30 and 6:30. My grandparents were dairy farmers and I think some of that early start ethos is ingrained in my day-to-day.
But I do find myself starting a little later than I used to. There was a time that I bought into the concept that successful people get up early and exercise, meditate, read, answer their emails, plan their day etc all before breakfast. These days I’ve come to see that as a form of business machismo that can be damaging, as well as beneficial.
I like to start working as soon as possible and if I’m left to my own devices, I will work through to the very end of the day. I can burn out if I don’t keep an eye on it. We’ve been working from home since the start of lockdown and I’ve found it harder to regulate the number of hours I work without the break of a small commute.
We’re very lucky where we live, though. We’re just off the East Lancs moors and we’ve got animals, including horses, cats, dogs, ducks etc, so those kinds of responsibilities and opportunities mean I don’t just sit and fester at my desk day and night.
Whilst I try not to work all-nighters anymore, I do occasionally when I feel I need to. I used to be able to do it every now and then but as I get older, it’s something that takes more of a toll on me.
It’s not unusual for me to be working at 11 pm, but these days I do try to put my laptop down by 9 pm and I try not to pick it up again before the next day. Like most business owners I know, I’m not hugely successful at not working all the time.
RW: It varies. I’m generally working by 08:00 and my finishing time can be anything between 15:00 and 22:00, depending on what I’m doing and what’s needed. Usually, my pain levels will stop play by late afternoon, however.
HW: It depends. Some days I start at 5:30 is and some days I don’t get to my desk until 9:30. My day usually ends at around 5 or 6 pm.
What is your favourite part of your job and what is your least favourite part?
SD: I like to fix things and explore new ideas. I also like to teach other people about the things I have learnt or help them to find the solution to the problems they’re experiencing.
As a marketer, I’ve had such a massive variety in the type of work I’ve done over the years. My marketing passion for the majority of my career has been in SEO, however, I’ve been in general marketing management roles and have worked with some amazing businesses. This has given me the opportunity to gain broad experience. There’s not a lot in terms of marketing activities I come across that I’ve not previously done. But I love it when I do have to do something I’ve never done before because that’s an opportunity to learn.
I think the thing that gives me the most pleasure in my role is seeing the business grow and change and adapt and seeing other people bring their skills and passions and ideas to the business.
There’s nothing that makes me more proud than when a member of the team can explain a technical SEO or marketing concept better than I can. And that’s happening more frequently.
I think it’s fair to say I struggle with this sometimes as well. Like all business founders, I have hopes, aspirations and a vision for the business. At some point, these things change as others bring their thoughts to the business and whilst it’s a good thing, I can sometimes find myself overly questioning other people’s contributions that take us in what I perceive to be a different direction from my vision.
I think the best example of this recently is our new service, GrowSkills. This is a new entry-level service in which we provide a platform for consultancy, training and DIY digital marketing. It’s a platform and solution that’s aimed at helping those businesses who can’t afford our usual offering. These are businesses that I have always argued we shouldn’t work with and this isn’t something that sits in my original thoughts for the business. However, I am very proud of the service we’ve brought to market. I believe this will not only help a lot of smaller businesses to get a handle on their digital marketing but also help us to grow our own business in new and exciting ways.
RW: I’m quite a solitary worker at heart, so my favourite thing is completing an SEO audit because I can switch my phone off, stop answering my emails and focus on one thing for a few hours. I feel like I’ve achieved something by the time I’ve finished one.
My least favourite thing is networking. It’s entirely necessary to our business and I’m good at it, but if I never had to make myself do it again, I wouldn’t be upset.
HW: I love coming up with new ideas, refining what we do or expanding our offering. I also really like building websites.
I hate invoicing. I’m not keen on selling but I seem to be alright at it.
What inspired you to start your business? (And what made you want to be your own boss?)
SD: Setting up my own business was a reaction to being made redundant and a reaction to the upcoming arrival of our son.
I was made redundant from the group that owned We Buy Any Car in 2008 and it’s had a lasting impact on me. I don’t think I’ve ever quite got over that in some ways.
I wanted to create a business that would help me grow a client base to work on after I’d finished working in corporate marketing. One of the things I’d noticed is there are very few marketers under the age of 40, so I was sitting there thinking I need to get something together before I get to that age.
I called it GrowTraffic rather than just Simon Dalley The SEO Consultant because I thought there was a chance to create an agency out of the concept in the future. I thought it would be best to make a brandable business that spoke of our general-purpose and services.
In terms of what made me want to be my own boss; well I think I’ve always had to be my own boss. All through my working life, I’ve been fairly unmanageable. I was always best when I was either in a lone ranger type role or when I was the leader of a team. It’s never worked when I had to closely report to someone else.
I’m creative. I can create plans and models, and hold other people to account, but I’ve never been able to follow a plan or process myself. I just go and find my own ways of doing things and it can drive people mad who are trying to manage me. They would want me to do one thing and I’ll end up doing something that gets us to the same outcome but perhaps not in the way they wanted or expected.
So I think I knew early on that I’d either need to be the manager in the room or set up my own business that would give me the freedom I need to do what I do.
RW: I have a condition called Degenerative Disc Disease, complicated by permanent nerve damage and scoliosis, so I spend my life in pain. Most of the time the pain is just there and manageable, but sometimes it flairs up and takes over my brain. Because of that, I needed flexibility in the way I worked. I never intended to start a business, run a business or be my own boss, it just happened. But it works for the way I need to work.
HW: My grandfather and mother owned their own businesses so I grew up watching entrepreneurs work hard, grow ideas, succeed, fail, hustle, deal, and strategise. I always wanted to own my own business and be really good at something. I was never as bothered about what it was.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
SD: I grew my first business whilst I was in university, but I let it fizzle when I got what I perceived to be a ‘proper job.’ Later, I did some freelance market research and some mystery shopping for an automotive company but I didn’t really enjoy it and was glad when it was over. I loved SEO, though. I thought it aligned well with my personality and the way I sold myself. I thought there was a good opportunity to grow a freelance SEO consultancy. At the time, many businesses were just starting to get their second website and they were actually trying to be scientific about how they marketed themselves on Google.
RW: I had previously started a publishing business, which had a number of successful events and a book launch. GrowTraffic was Dalley’s idea, I would never have chosen SEO and search marketing, although now I find it really interesting, now I’m in it.
HW: And I just barged in and started telling people what to do. Miraculously, they let me!
How did you fund your business?
SD: I started as a freelancer whilst I was still working in corporate marketing management roles. I rose through the ranks in my professional career, getting to head of marketing level and this facilitated the growth of the business whilst I was still working.
I joined the business in a full-time capacity many years later. I always thought I was supporting the business by continuing to work full-time, however, I now think it would have been better to have taken the leap much earlier on, and taken the pain of a reduced income whilst we built the business.
Who knows?! But I am thankful for all those people who helped bring this monster into being.
RW: With hard work. We’ve grown it organically and we’ve only recently taken on a small amount of credit to fund a period of sudden expansion.
Naturally, the reality is much more complicated than that, but that’s a simple answer.
HW: The main thing is we just started to sell. In the very early days of the company, there were times when we didn’t take any wages and this helped us to bring on more employees and get more established.
What has been the biggest challenge for your business?
SD: There have been so many challenges over the years.
I call GrowTraffic GTV5 because there have been so many false starts.
We had what I think of as the second founding in 2017 when we set up the limited company and brought in a new director. It was from this point that many of the foundations were laid for turning the freelance business myself and Rachel had run into a successful growing agency.
Probably one of the biggest challenges over the years has been working with my family. My wife Rachel joined the business in 2014 and my sister-in-law joined in 2017. There are huge benefits of working with your family because they can commit to a business in a way you wouldn’t expect other people to commit to a business. But it does leave you vulnerable to interacting with each other in ways you wouldn’t ordinarily interact with people in a professional environment.
For example, when Rachel first joined the business in 2014, I remember being so excited about how we would grow the business, but the reality of trying to work together was much more difficult. It took us years to find an understanding of how we should work together and how we should communicate with each other about the business. We often took ourselves out of the house to a neutral public space – like a pub or a restaurant – to make decisions about the business, because discussing things in the living room or over the dining room table would often end up in heated discussions.
But the biggest challenge is me. I’m torn between growing a business that is self-sustaining and so much bigger than me and building a business that provides recognition and ensures I have a client base for as long as I need it. It’s all wrapped up in the reasons for setting up the business in the first place: the fear of being out of a job again. It’s both rational and irrational and it’s a powerful dichotomy that I’ve unfortunately in some ways baked into the business.
RW: Naturally, we’ve faced every problem your average SME will face, so there’s nothing unusual that stands out. Finding the right staff, maintaining a decent cash flow, acquiring the right clients etc. are all consistent issues we battle.
The challenge we return to again and again, however, is ensuring a smooth and constructive relationship between the four Directors/Managers in the business. There’s barely a month goes by without someone threatening to leave, but I know that is not unusual for a family business! But we work on it and muddle through. We all have the same goals but that doesn’t mean we can’t disagree about how we get there. It’s like a marriage; it takes work and compromise.
HW: It would be too easy to say the pandemic and the challenges all feel big at the time. Finding the right customers is a challenge. We learnt quite quickly that we shouldn’t really work with people who need convincing of the benefits of SEO but they sometimes don’t reveal themselves until too late.
Also pricing ourselves properly has always been something we have debated.
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to growth for SMEs in the UK?
SD: I think all businesses are different. I run a marketing agency, so the consistent problem that businesses owners talk to me about most frequently is the difficulty in attracting large enough numbers of clients or the right types of clients in order to grow their business. We share this problem too.
It’s about building a sales and marketing machine that will really help your business to grow and that can be something that’s very difficult to achieve. You can spend a lot of time and effort trying to get it right. I’ve found from bitter experience that you also can’t just lift what another business has done and try to apply it to your own business. Generally, it’s something that you have to feel your way to with trial and error. But more help and support from the government could help fewer businesses fail so early in their life.
Also, I wasn’t a fan of leaving the European Union. I believe in the idea of people coming together and working together. I think Brexit is going to cause some pain in the short term – and we’re starting to see this now – but I think there will be new opportunities for businesses in the coming years because of Brexit too.
I have always felt the impact of cities on local communities is damaging for a lot of businesses, with the so-called ‘best talent’ commuting for work, creating dormitory towns in their wake. But I’m interested to see how the pandemic will change this as we see a growth in hybrid working agreements and the rise of the work local movement.
RW: The right affordable funding at the right time. We need a more joined-up approach from the government, local councils and lenders. It’s getting better but it’s a long way from perfect, and the Covid pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis.
HW: A lack of clear information and support. There are millions of business mentors, marketing agencies, growth specialists, coaches, training courses…and they all say something different. Some are skilled, some are less so, some are making it up as they go.
Most of us got into the business because we are good at something. Knowing how to grow effectively is a challenge. Practical support from a definitive source would be great. GT did an EU funded course at Edge Hill University that looked at our processes, finances, ambitions, and mistakes and it was incredibly valuable. It gave us skills we didn’t have before.
Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?
SD: I’ve made so many mistakes over the years. I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is that I need other people around me to make the big things I want to happen, happen.
And I’ve also learned that I’m not the best communicator and if I try to force something to happen it often doesn’t, because of me. I have to encourage and nudge other people to find the answers I want them to, then help make sure we’re going roughly in the direction I want us to. All the while I need to tread carefully so I don’t get so involved that I overcomplicate things and things don’t happen or so I don’t end up winding everyone up.
RW: Millions. We all make mistakes daily, the key is to learn from them and move on.
HW: I’d say I’ve made millions of mistakes, too. Big ones and small ones. Pricing everything wrong, underselling a contract, choosing the wrong clients, deleting websites by accident. After I have berated myself a bit I overcome them by asking for help from my colleagues and/or network.
What previous experiences have helped you in starting your business?
SD: I was always a self-starter and self-manager and I have helped to set up two digital marketing agencies over the years, so I had a good understanding of what I was doing. But I’m always faced with things that I’ve never experienced before and I either have to learn fast or find someone else to help.
RW: I grew up in and around family businesses, so I suspect I have learned a lot by osmosis. Mainly what not to do. They are normal to me, as are the challenges they face, which I think has helped me to take things as they come.
We also experienced bankruptcy as a result of a family business folding, so – whilst I do not want to experience that again – it has taken away the fear and mystery around what happens when a business fails. I will work my socks off to ensure that never happens to us, but I know that, if it does, we will be OK. It’s both motivating and freeing.
HW: I worked as a careers advisor and enterprise officer in colleges for a long time so I had a decent network of people who helped people start businesses. That helped in the company’s early days.
I also worked in an SME that was rapidly expanding. I was in charge of processes and general office management. It gave me a bit of grounding.
Don’t tell anyone, but I am making most of it up as I go along.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?
SD: There’s never a right time to start a business. It’s a bit like having a baby. If you wait for the right time it might never happen. You’ve got to take the risk to get it off the ground and it’s going to be hard work and you’re probably not going to earn much money, to begin with, but it will be worth it in the end.
RW: Get help. No one can run a business by themselves, because no one knows everything.
One thing I did at first was panic about everything that I didn’t know how to do, which meant often I didn’t do them or did them poorly/wrong. I was quite ill at the time and had no self-confidence, so I presumed that, if I asked for help, people would dismiss me. When I eventually realised that no one knows everything, I started to ask for help.
So, if you don’t know how to do your tax return, ask an accountant. If you don’t know how to build a website, ask a web designer. If you’re drowning in work, employ help. If you can’t pay for their services yet, can you do a skills swap? You will have skills they don’t have, so work something out. Your life will become easier and your business will grow.
HW: Grow a network of people you trust. They will support you, champion you, and put you in touch with people who can answer specific questions.
Would you do anything differently if you could start again from scratch?
SD: I’d try to communicate with people around me about what I wanted to achieve. I may have been more comfortable and confident in the role I play in the organisation.
Whilst still putting people in place around me, I also wouldn’t have abdicated responsibility to others quite so much. I had this idea that I could build something that would almost work without me, and to a great extent, I’ve achieved that. Perhaps in spite of me. But I’ve found it’s an unsatisfying and often frustrating position to find yourself in. I think this is something many founders find when their business grows into something that’s so much more than themselves.
RW: That would depend on whether or not the circumstances were different.
HW: I would perhaps chill out a bit. It has been very stressful because I am terrified it will fail. The pandemic taught me that I can’t really control that. If it fails, it fails. I will do something else. If I work hard and keep going it probably won’t.
What do you do to relax away from the hustle and bustle of work?
SD: I like to go walking with the dog or our son in the hills and the moors around us, in Rossendale. I’m also very lucky to live where we do, as we have a bit of land, which is edged by the River Irwell and can be very beautiful and relaxing. I just love being out in the fresh air with no one around me.
RW: I love to play outside. I have horses so I get at least an hour outside in the fresh air every day anyway, but I am an outdoors person. I need to switch the laptop off, put the phone on silent and get outside in the fresh air. It’s necessary to escape for a bit each day.
HW: I enjoy reading, going to gigs, eating, spending time with my family, playing netball and working out.
What would you be doing if you weren’t running your own business?
SD: I’d probably be a miserable marketing director. I say miserable because I love the freedom associated with running my own business and also the satisfaction of creating something that is for me and my family.
RW: Who knows?! I can’t answer questions like that; too many variables. If I wasn’t running my business and well? If I didn’t have kids? If I hadn’t got married? If I’d done a different course at university? I got here by accident so who knows where I’d be if any one of those variables had changed.
HW: I’d probably be running someone else’s business.
Do you manage to achieve a good work/life balance?
SD: I enjoy my work and have a great life. I really can’t complain. I think it’s all relative. If someone was looking at the amount I work, I’d forgive them for thinking it’s not a good work-life balance. But for me it is and it works. And I am the master of my own schedule and can take a day off, if and when I want to.
Whether I get the right balance of work and life, within my life more generally, is also open to debate. My wife works for GrowTraffic and her and I have sunk so much time into making this business the success it is today that our lives can sometimes be consumed by the business. It can be hard to switch off from it. Often we’re both sat next to each other working for hours into the evening and before we know it, practically the only things we’ve spoken about for days can be work-related. Yeah, so probably not great in some respects. But again, I do think it works for us.
RW: I think I do now, although others may argue. I work every day, but that’s my choice and something to keep my brain occupied whilst I’m resting/taking painkillers. I am happy with the balance I’ve achieved. I work when I’m productive, I play outside when my brain is done. If I want a day off, I can take one. The benefits of working for yourself!