Slick, sophisticated and successful, StudioHawk is now a major player in the SEO world, with some pretty impressive credentials.
A multi-award-winner – with nearly 70 highly skilled employees – StudioHawk works with top brands, including Ryobi, Vodafone, Aje, and Officeworks.
But don’t for one moment think that this has been an easy journey for founder Harry Sanders. Far from it!
But as the famous saying goes, ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’!
“Yeah, like any good real life story, there’s no fairy tale endings,” Harry told Coast to Coast.
Natural talent for SEO
Harry’s career journey began when he was just 13. After his father fell victim to a dubious marketing agency, Harry stepped in to help and discovered a natural talent for digital marketing.
Loving the mix of logic and creativity, he focussed on SEO, quickly improving his father’s business ranking.
But then things went horribly wrong!
“I helped Dad out with his website when I was younger, but he, being divorced, was seeing different partners. And one partner that he ended up being with decided that I was baggage from the previous relationship,” said Harry.
“This is a very common story, unfortunately, with step-parents – and she was the one that kicked me out. Dad kind of just stood by. He had a rough upbringing himself, so I don’t think he saw it as majorly problematic.”
Now out on his own, Harry had no choice but to build his own future.
“I actually started the business just before I was kicked out. I was pretty confident that it would be successful. To be honest, I didn’t turn the situation around very quickly.
Couch surfing and homeless camps
“It took me couch surfing, staying in homeless camps, staying under bridges, six, seven months of trying to get a job before I turned my focus again to the business.”
Harry was fortunate in meeting some great people, who were only too happy to help.
“The only reason I turned my attention back to the business was because I had a tremendous social worker who encouraged me to,” he said.
“And I met an incredible business mentor who really helped guide me on how to create a business. Without those two things, honestly, StudioHawk never would have been successful.
“When I started the business, if I hadn’t learnt what I learned spending time on the streets or going through that level of adversity, the business never would have worked. We made 20 grand or 30 grand in the first year, really, after 80-hour weeks. And only then did it actually start generating some success.”
There was also an element of ‘fake it till you make it’!
Harry said that at the beginning, “it was just me trying to pretend that I had a workforce of people doing stuff to build authenticity, because I realized that people didn’t want to work with someone just representing themselves.
“So as far as I could, without lying, I stretched the truth about StudioHawk and what we did, but it really was just a couple, two or three of those first clients that gave me a go!
“That allowed me to get off the ground and get some revenue. That was super important because it allowed me to get enough money to get a share house, which was, I think, $120 a week or something. So, I guess that was really the start of it.”
Brick by brick building
Whilst the world of digital marketing might appear glamorous these days, it wasn’t always the case.
“I was in grubby clothes. I was a tech founder, going to every free networking event, trying to get business from people. It wasn’t glamorous. We didn’t have staff, we didn’t have clients, we didn’t have anything. So, it was really brick by brick building that up.”
When the business began, Harry never thought it would get bigger than two or three employees – hence the STUDIO part of the name. The name HAWK came from the idea that hawks weren’t the meanest animal in the kingdom, but they had the best eyesight, and they could laser focus in.
“I thought that works well because I want to laser focus in on SEO!”
Of course, going it alone at such a young age was a huge risk.
“When I first started, what drove me was I thought it would make me rich, which is the stupidest, most incompetent reason to start a business! Why? Because starting a business to get rich, it just doesn’t work like that,” said Harry.
“Most businesses, if you want to get rich, if you want to have a good life, you’re better off working for someone. I don’t think I know anyone that started a business to get rich that was successful, because it almost is counterintuitive to running a business.
“To run a good business, you have to be passionate about something and want to make a difference in something. Trying to chase money is honestly the worst way to do that. That’s how small businesses often die because they don’t find their market fit. Money is not a market fit. This idea of people just having excess amounts of money to throw at you is not a reality.
“What pivoted and what changed was this idea of, you know, I’m very down on my life but I want to give really good people an opportunity. I want to give people like Lawrence, like Anthony, two of our general managers that came from difficult backgrounds, an opportunity. And that desire still burns alive today.”
Harry and his small team at the time were passionate about transforming the SEO industry – because they believed it was very underserviced.
“A lot of people were doing really crappy work. We had this idea of specializing down and removing the traditional salesperson/account manager. We had the idea to remove that middleman and just link people up straight with the engineer, which was a very new idea at the time, and still not that many people do it.
“We called that, ‘SEO specialist so close you can smell them’. And that took off because people immediately understood how that worked, and they wanted to work directly with engineers. They didn’t want slick account managers. They wanted to talk to nerdy engineers that get stuff done.
“That model was successful because we weren’t chasing money, and we still aren’t today. We are focused on delivering kick ass SEO and giving great people opportunities. And those are two things that I can get behind.”
What has also changed, of course, is that business owners now have a better understanding of why good SEO is so important – and should be seen as an investment, not a cost.
“I think nowadays people are much more sophisticated in understanding SEO. I think for a lot of online businesses, understanding organic marketing is as important as being able to read a P&L statement.
“If your business is coming from online, you need to understand how the hell that works. Not saying you have to do it, there’s a reason why we have accountants, but you need to understand it.
“We have a few thousand students come through our education platform, Hawk Academy every year, which we provide scholarships for. A lot of our clients go through Hawk Academy. And yeah, I think businesses understand more now, especially with the rising cost of paid [marketing], that SEO is something they need to know and understand.”
The onset of the COVID pandemic was a double-edged sword for StudioHawk.
On one hand, there was a massive boom in online businesses, which meant a lot more interest in StudioHawk’s services. But there were problems, too.
“Of course, some industries fell off, like travel and entertainment, for instance. But we had a massive problem on the other side of that – talent acquisition. While there was a lot of demand for SEO, we saw a lot of hustlers, but not many masters in SEO. And we certainly need masters more than we need hustlers!
“That’s where the Hawk Academy is good because we can train students. We had a full Learning and Development team within StudioHawk as well. But we also had to mass relocate people from London to Australia in order to service these clients at a level that our clients have come to expect from us.”
Coming out the other side, Harry believes digital marketing is more important than ever.
“In the current market, if you don’t have effective SEO, what’s happening is you are paying a fortune for all your leads. Every ad is getting more and more expensive. I think it’s up 22% over the past year. That is a serious amount of money.
Build your brand
“And that’s just going to continue to go up and up. So, if you’re not leveraged against that by building brand or building SEO, you’re just competing for advertising along with everyone else. You don’t really have a business.
“I do a lot of private equity work now, and more than ever we’re hearing people asking about businesses’ organic [growth] and brand.
“So, how many people find you through your SEO versus your paid ads? Because I can create a paid ads profile tomorrow, and it’s a marketplace, so I can just outbid you and I can take your whole business. Whereas SEO is more strategic, more about building expertise, authority, and trust that takes many years for someone else to mimic.”
Clearly, Harry’s approach is working as StudioHawk has won several awards!
“Our biggest point of difference is we have a direct engineer model – you work directly with an SEO specialist. That’s a massive point of difference because it means we really need unicorns. We need people that are fantastic at the tech and the marketing, but that can also talk to people. We do a lot training and hire the best of the best in order to do that.
“The second point of difference is our focus purely on SEO. We don’t focus on paid ads, on websites, on anything like that. We are purists in what we do. An inch wide, but a mile deep. I always said you can’t be the best at everything, so pick what you want to be the best at.
Ethics and values
“Third would be just our level of standards around what we do. We don’t lock people into contracts. We turn away about 60% of the work that comes our way because we don’t think we can make a serious impact. That’s our level of ethics and values; we want to genuinely do a good job.”
But isn’t turning away business a dangerous move?
“Absolutely, as a business owner, it hurts to turn away all that revenue. We could probably be double the size if we took that all on. But reputationally, we’ll take a massive hit and would lose sight of what we started for, which is to be a kick ass SEO company that gives opportunities to people. And if we lose that by chasing the money, we’re back at square one.
“I find that by doing the right thing, good things happen. Sometimes it’s hard, sometimes it means we don’t hit the revenue milestones. Maybe we turn away work that we probably shouldn’t turn away. But ultimately, it builds the business into what it is today.”
To find out more about StudioHawk, visit www.studiohawk.com.au.
HARRY’S HOT TIPS FOR SUCCESS
#1: Genuinely love what you do! Find a passion you have. Find something that even when you’re in the 100th hour of work that week – and you’ve made bugger-all money – you are still happy to wake up and work on it. I just had a holiday for a week, and I still got on my emails, not because I had to, but because I wanted to. That is key in having a great business. Genuine love and passion for what you do and what you deliver.
#2: A thirst for knowledge and learning. I think that you can be super passionate, love everything about your business, but you don’t continuously learn and grow and do new things. There’s this idea called knowledge inflation, which is the idea that you lose about 12% of your knowledge every year, right? So, if you’re not learning more than 12% a year, you’re losing 12% a year with a flatline. You’ve always got to be learning and growing constantly. That’s a very key part of business.
#3: Be humble, be kind. No-one wants to work with bad business owners. You might see in middle management that people succeed by being rude. But real big businesses, the businesspeople I know from massive multi-billion-dollar companies, are some of the loveliest people you’ll meet. They really just want to help their friends, look after each other and strive to create a better community together, regardless of how the media portray them to be. By being a bad person, you lose a lot of opportunities.