GROW@GreenPark is proud to have been a home to several start-ups, providing an affordable, flexible space and an engaging, supportive community. It’s a place where small businesses can establish themselves, prove a sustainable business model and gain the confidence to take the next steps to scale-up.
This is part of GROW’s mission as a vibrant, start-up incubator and we are happy to see our start-ups fly; unfortunately, due to limited space we are not always able to accommodate their physical growth and they move on to a new location. The good news is our alumni still remain part of our wider community and we always love to hear how they are getting on.
Blue Array is an innovative SEO ‘consulgency’ which started to work from GROW early in 2016 with two desks, expanding to an impressive twelve over the course of a year. Blue Array have recently moved into some rather cool offices at Kings Bridge House and have further plans to scale. We caught up with Simon Schneiders, CEO and founder, to find out what has happened since their early days at GROW and how coworking positioned Blue Array for their ongoing success.
When did you start Blue Array and why did you come to GROW?
I was previously Head of SEO at Zoopla and started to do consultancy work in response to regularly being asked for advice – consequently I decided to set up my own agency.
There are challenges facing the ambitious solo-preneur regarding how to scale their business, which become a constant balancing act - can I represent my clients, take on and train new hires and still have the passion it needs to find new clients and grow the business?
Starting a business often means convincing partners and family to support the venture but the cost of additional help and an initial hire means too much risk, so for the first six months I worked alone from a home office.
One option was to keep it simple and base myself in Soho alongside other agencies, but that incurred costs, time commuting and increased pressure balancing work with personal life and responsibilities.
An alternative was to take on an apprentice, which meant I needed a local office. Taking on my first hire and affordable employee, Tom, was pivotal in coming to GROW.
I stumbled across GROW searching for coworking in Reading. Flexibility to scale desk by desk and short-term contracts were essential as in the early stages you don’t know where you’ll be in a year. To be upfront, fifty percent of our costs are payroll and margins are slim; we could not have committed to a set square footage and been tied into a lease.
In the first year we grew organically by referrals, gradually taking on new hires. Referrals have a pace and shape to them and it would not have been possible to develop the business incrementally this way outside somewhere like GROW.
Another attraction to being at GROW meant that as a start-up of two, we were part of a community which meant that when I was out of the office Tom, and later other apprentices, were not left on their own and were included as part of a social environment.
Being part of a start-up community also presents opportunities for ‘water cooler moments’, in other words, invaluable casual chats in the kitchen or over a coffee, where you share ideas and experiences with other start-ups and learn about each other’s pain points. This can be a great source of support or inspiration.
Blue Array is different to other SEO agencies and has a very specific business model – what’s different about how you do things?
Most specialist agencies pivot early on by providing a full service and becoming increasingly generalist to diversify revenue, this also subsequently dilutes the core offering.
Blue Array has been incredibly successful focussing solely on SEO and we are always evolving to address our own and our customers’ pain points. In response to these we have developed new services, ‘Reputation Management’ and ‘Press Pull’, strands of SEO which we have effectively productised, to meet those needs.
Historically it was possible to get by optimising websites on key words, paid search and buying links, a practice Blue Array has never done and to which Google has effectively called an end, by changing the search algorithms.
Search algorithms are constantly developing and becoming more sophisticated, which means they now incur algorithmic penalties for certain practices; a deeper technical understanding and new approaches are necessary to improve customer rankings.
We also prefer not to have reliance on two to three big clients, taking up to ten to twenty days per month. We focus on clients for whom we work approximately 5 days per month. If a client is likely to need more time we will help them to find another agency.
As well as deep Technical SEO we also offer tactical and strategic consultancy for customers who may carry out the work in house.
Recently, we set up an arrangement with Netmums as they struggled with getting in-house developer resource; they have now hired a freelancer to work from our offices on their account and only on SEO related changes. We’re now looking to this as a POC for other clients.
Tell us more about your new services ‘Reputation Management’ and ‘Press Pull’.
Strong back links are an important factor optimising websites and the forefront of digital PR. We charge an affordable monthly fee to ensure that our customers have high quality back links to their site by turning the traditional PR model on its head with our ‘Press Pull’ service. Instead of sending PR content out to journalists in the hope that it will be picked up, we know the right listening points where journalists are actively calling for specific content and match this to our clients’ needs.
It can take many years to build a reputation and an instant to destroy it; we take a proactive approach to reduce the visibility of negative publicity and improve the perception of our clients with our ‘Reputation Management’ offering. We use a number of techniques and aim to be the ‘go to people’ to restore online reputation.
Since leaving GROW you’ve scaled and just moved into smart new offices. How are you settling in?
We’ve just moved into a great office at Kings Bridge House and settling in to our new home. The new space has the extra capacity we need – we now have a staff of twenty-one and expect to be up to thirty by year end.
We’ve remodelled the space to appeal to a younger workforce; it has an industrial feel with wood cladding and colourful artwork. A ping pong table, large screen TV and Nintendo Switch make it a fun environment, all just in time for summer!
As an agency we want to provide more care and create an environment which is conducive to everyone. The work is very ‘human labour’ intensive, it’s not SAAS, and so requires both brain power and a prescriptive method to get the maximum volume of work done. As payroll is fifty percent of our turnover we all work at full capacity, full time. Over capacity leads to additional stress and an overworked and burnt out workforce, so we ensure as far as possible that staff aren’t working evenings or weekends; creative people need to be fresh with space to breathe and think.
Blue Array is training the next generation of SEO managers and we are evolving our learning and development roadmap. Other agencies have lots of juniors and are middle manager heavy, supported by execs. We employ a mixture of experience and professionals; our apprentices sit in groups with an SEO manager and this has proved to be the most effective and supportive model for our apprentices to thrive.
Most Blue Array staff have been given vested stock - not a percentage, but actual shares. I came from Zoopla where employees were given stock options, which is well intentioned, but these can get diluted. Whatever happens, our staff have the confidence that their stock cannot be devalued and have a genuine investment and motivation in the business.
SEO is constantly evolving; what developments are driving the future direction of SEO?
Google’s mobile first indexing and the rise of voice search are changing the future of SEO. Conversational speech queries and audible answers are now challenging the key word, pay per click model and those results now feature above the fold, ranking in position zero.
How to monetize voice search as more queries are made using voice and natural language is currently being worked out by the major players. It will be driven by whoever is first to own the greater share of real estate capturing conversational search over a range of devices.
Somehow you also find time to be a business mentor and angel investor to other start-ups! Who are they and where do you mentor?
And finally, how important was GROW to the success Blue Array?
We’re very thankful we had the opportunity to found Blue Array at GROW and would definitely not be where we are today without it.
There were no other options available to us which would have allowed us to make that all important first hire and grow organically by referrals. Being at GROW meant we were able to balance risk of expansion in an environment with a supportive community; GROW not only provided a place to share experiences and learn from other start-ups, but also an open space suitable for new apprentices without the costs of being tied into a lease.