What are you willing to do for money?

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In September of 2008 I walked out of an SEO job at a web marketing agency. I’d had enough.

The fact that this was also just when the U.S. economy was taking a big crap in its pants was just a fun coincidence. Here I was walking away from a paycheck when thousands of people a day were finding their own stripped away.

A lot of people asked me whether I had another job lined up. When I told them I didn’t they also crapped their pants.

What the hell was I thinking?

It’s been about 17 months – plenty of time to reflect on that decision, and the following decisions to turn down well-paying jobs at other agencies.

I still don’t know exactly what I’m doing.

But I have a better idea of why I’m doing it.

Dishonesty sucks

I don’t enjoy the knowledge that I’m burning up someone else’s time and money and calling it macaroni.

In my time in the agency world I saw a lot of work that should have never been sold. A SEO project would end up on my desk, and I’d find myself looking at the website in question and thinking, “they don’t need SEO. They need a message. They need a marketing overhaul. They might even need to be slapped around a bit first. SEO isn’t going to help them.” And don’t tell me a marketing overhaul is part of a complete SEO breakfast or I’ll hit you.

I still marvel at the ability of some salespeople to blow smoke up the asses of people who trust them, see the business hurt as a result and still drop by next year with a smile and a new Rolex.

Of course that’s an extreme image – most salespeople don’t own luxury watches, and if they don’t understand what they’re selling they might not know when it’s bogus. Thin excuse, if you ask me.

For me, doing unjustified, uninspired and frequently pointless work that was literally draining the pockets of business owners, who were entering the worst economy since the Great Depression, started to take a toll. My left eye developed a twitch. I had nightmares. I was angry constantly.

So I walked away. I had a few freelance clients (the agency I worked for was nice enough to let me work on the side). I had a trickle of income and some money in the bank. I could survive until I built momentum.

Today there’s not much in the bank. Some. Enough that I’m not worried about my bills. Not enough to buy a Rolex. And I’m still not sure when that momentum thing kicks in.

But aside from when something big goes wrong with a project or a client doesn’t pay (both rare) I sleep pretty well these days.

Knowing your own ethics

Years ago I was talking with a salesman I worked with who’d been out shaking the trees for new SEO clients. We were discussing a project he wanted to pitch. It turned into an argument.

I didn’t think SEO was the answer. I thought the client’s problems were much bigger, and that presenting them with SEO as a “solution” was a mistake (and dishonest).

He wanted to bring in business. And the conversation stopped abruptly when he said this:

“The important thing is that we’re working.”

There was nowhere to go from there. His ethic was wrapped up in that sentence, and I knew it didn’t click with mine.

What I wanted to say is, “no, the important thing is that we’re helping our clients.” But I don’t think it would have made a difference.

But ethical debates are somewhat pointless in commerce. Markets decide. Nobody likes to be swindled, but that’s nothing new. “It’s bad to cheat people” isn’t exactly a profound statement.

And the time and effort you can spend pointing out the dishonesties of others, dragging the ugly little man out from behind the curtain, is usually better spent in other endeavors.

It ain’t all bad

There are good people in this industry. And by “good” I don’t just mean upstanding citizens; they’re good at what they do. They generate a positive return for their clients. They pull their weight and then some.

But if we’re taking Internet marketing as a whole we have to accept that there’s no barrier to entry – anybody with a laptop and wi-fi access can hang their shingle online. They can solicit clients, publish any content and push any product they want. They can lie and screw people over (whether they’re aware they’re doing it or not).

On a long enough timeline the dishonest will find themselves spending money and time turned backward scrubbing their muddy footprints. But there will be dishonest companies as long as there are dishonest people.

At some point each of us has to answer this question: what are you willing to do for money?

Comments

  1. Great post, I think this rings true for a lot of people who are still stuck in the shoes you once wore. Those people who are working in an agency or company where their ethics are far from that of the companies, but they can’t seem to pull themselves away (especially in this economy). It’s really a sad state of affairs when you have employees who don’t even believe in the “work” being done.

    To play devils advocate for a minute (just for shits and giggles), there are times when even the client takes this poor ethical approach. I’ve worked with clients where they don’t understand what it is they are asking for but if you don’t give it to them someone else will. So do you turn-it down, take the job and wish you didn’t, or really fight to get your point across. It can be exhausting and sometimes you need that check to cover the bills that month/week. My opinion would be to state your case, and don’t take the job if the client insists on you doing it despite the lack of results you know you’ll get.

    It’s a hard choice to make sometimes, between a paycheck and knowing you’re not doing “the best”, and saying know and wondering how you’re going to pay the bills. However, I’ve found that I’d rather worry about the bills then trying to explain myself to the client down the road.

    • Mike Tekula says:

      Thanks bud.

      I propose that your hypothetical client isn’t being unethical – they’re being retarded. If you’re telling them it won’t work and they’re saying “do it anyway” it is a dilemma. You can take the job, suck it up and tell yourself you won’t take another, or you can tell the client to go elsewhere with their cockamame schemes and bad attitude.

      Speaking from experience, if your schedule is full of work you hate doing that has no value, expect your drinking habit to kick into top gear.

      Comparing some of the “SEO projects” I’ve been involved with to working on a sewer repair crew, I’m not sure which was shittier.

  2. Amazing article. I can’t remember how your site ended up in my Google Reader but I’m genuinely glad that it did.

    Being dishonest with clients is a big no-no for me. I constantly see people say “yes” when the answer is usually “perhaps” just to make the client happy. To me even something as minor as that is complete dishonesty.

    I’m always honest with my clients and I always will be, even if one day it means I have to end my full-time employment – not that it would.

    • Mike Tekula says:

      Thanks man. I was actually sitting on this post for a few days. Wasn’t sure I should publish it – whether people would find it “useful.”

      Integrity is key – not only does it help you sleep at night, but if you ever find your dishonesty dragged out into the daylight it’s a thankless position. That throws everything you say/do into question.

      I think we all look for people who tell us like it is – these are the people we go to when we’re faced with tough decisions. I try like hell to be one of those people for my friends, colleagues and clients. Sounds like you do too.

      • To be honest, if the post is useful to you then it’s likely to be useful to somebody else.

        I’m always going to try and stick to my guns, I don’t like people who go against what they truly believe in just because they’re worried about what people will think or what the consequence is. It’s good to see that you’re like this too.

  3. It would seem you have just read my mind, my heart and my soul.

    I just left a job (and there are not any other jobs here in my local area) because I was being screamed at everyday (literally) and threatened (personally and very true) and in exchange I had provided for this company nothing less than excellent service.

    Among other things I did a complete overhaul of their website with branding, design and coding (yes, they are still using it), SEO, social media marketing, defined for their executive team what a web site build package should contain so they could sell to clients, designed a web application for them, and branded two additional internal applications with the new design I created.

    I did all of this within the four months I was there. I am completely bereft and lost as to what to do to feed my family now. So why did I leave? I was not able to go one single additional day in that toxic environment. The final straw was being told I had to adjust to the screaming and the threats because that was how they had always done business.

    I needed to read your post today and I have hope that there are honest and decent folks out there in business still. I’m just hoping I make it to the other side and get a chance to work with some.

    • Mike Tekula says:

      I’m at a bit of a loss for words. That sounds like a rotten situation beyond imagination.

      No matter what short term pain you’ll have in terms of income, I can’t imagine you’ll look back on your decision and regret it. “Toxic” is just the right word to describe it. You had to get out.

      And those people doing the screaming and threatening – what a sad way to live and work. They’re surrounded by people who despise them.

      There are good and decent people out there, many of them still stuck in situations like the one you just walked away from.

      I suspect you’ll do better than you fear – we always do as long as we keep moving. And in the mean time reflecting on your experience in public, telling your story, has a funny way of helping those other decent people in tough situations (as I can only hope, in some tiny, grain-of-sand manner, my post might have helped you).

  4. goodnewscowboy says:

    @Mike Sooo if I say a marketing overhaul is part of a complete SEO breakfast of champions I’m gonna get slapped around? Fine. Then I won’ t say it :p.

    I’m glad you published the post man. This subject is every bit as important as discussing on page issues, robots.txt verbiage, etc. Character in business cannot be underestimated in terms of overall importance.

    Honesty and integrity will (IMHAMNO – In my humble and maybe naive opinion) always win out against lying and cheating. Maybe not right away, but it WILL win out. The maxim of “what comes around goes around” is like the law of gravity. It’s a constant.

    • Mike Tekula says:

      Virtually slapped. ;)

      I think the web makes it harder for swindlers to swindle. It’s painless for people to speak out. So yay for the web.

      But a lot of BS and swindling still goes on. Rat bastards will always be out there – that’s what makes us appreciate the good people.

      Some of the bad guys will keep earning. Can’t beat them all. We just have to be content with knowing that they’re all ugly and unloved even by their moms.

  5. goodnewscowboy says:

    @Christy – I don’t know your exact situation, but I’m guessing that you added YEARS to your life by getting out of that insane asylum. As far as feeding your family I can relate big time. I was “downsized” from well paying job in the early 90’s with family of 4 that depended upon my income.

    It was probably the hardest time of my life, yet one of the most defining. I worked 3 jobs to get by. Unloaded UPS trucks in the wee hours of the morning for the insurance benefits, sold paper over the phone during the day, and sold replacement windows to homeowners at night.

    I don’t think I would ever want to go back but I came out of it a better, stronger , more in touch with God person than I was when I went into it. And although it seemed to last FOREVER, it was really only a short while in the grands scheme of things.

    I said all that in an attempt to encourage you that you WILL get by and manage to feed your family, and you WILL end up in a position you love. You don’t ever have to put up with the kind of crap those @##)*#%& people at your old job shoveled your way.

    Now you can use them to your advantage. You can (unofficially of course) make their site a part of your portfolio. Cream ALWAYS rises to the top and I’ve no doubt you’ll land in the clover, feet first as long as you keep looking for your opportunity.

  6. Great post, Mike. I’m going through something similar now – and as tough as it is, anything that makes you stop and think about what’s really important can’t be all bad.

    • Mike Tekula says:

      That’s an excellent point for sure – the tough times show us where our core principles really lie. We need the tough times.

  7. Damn brotha, that was a helluva post and decision you made. Nothing like a good nights sleep and a clear conscious. Alot of people wouldn’t be willing to make that jump even with money in the bank and perhaps feeling the way you did, I think they will be the ones with regrets later on. I’m real big on karma, good and bad.

    You did right thing bro IMO, might not have been financially right {“At some point each of us has to answer this question: what are you willing to do for money?”}, but nevertheless the right thing. Much good karma to you.

    • Mike Tekula says:

      Yeah financially it’s safe to say I took a hit – but I’m surviving and sleeping like a stone baby at night. And I’m having way more fun.

      I don’t know about karma, but being bluntly honest agrees with me. That and selling services with actual value.

  8. Gosh, Mike. Awesome post. This speaks loudly on so many levels – definitely way beyond the SEO world. What is the point of collecting paychecks when the work you did to get them is bogus or half-assed? What an ugly way to live. Not to mention the giant crap it takes all over your industry.

    You took a risk to leave your job behind, but you made a decision that is MUCH better for your health and you are able to offer so much more for people. A no-brainer.

    Isn’t that why we’re here? To find our talents and use them to help others solve problems and for us all to do better as a result?

    • Mike Tekula says:

      Thanks sister!

      The sad truth is that, while yes, it does take a giant crap all over the SEO industry, the industry is about half-full of pieces of crap to begin with. So to them it’s like confetti.

      A secret: I’m not really going to write about SEO anymore (at least, not much). It’s all been said 30x times over. And it’s boring. Most people who come to me thinking they need “SEO” actually need a kick in the figurative crotch. They’re doing it wrong, and they need to cut the crap. Somewhere in filling that need is a business model I’m trying to figure out…

      • goodnewscowboy says:

        This touches upon a lot of what I’ve been pondering about for a few months now. I wanted to make a YOUmoz post about it, but I can’t quite seem to be able to wrap my head around what I want to say about it.

        When you say you don’t want to do SEO posts much anymore, but instead give a kick where it hurts, I contend that that still IS SEO in the much broader sense of the term.

        Think about what the origins of SEO were. Companies that were brand new to the web wanted to get sales. So they hired SEO’s to bring them traffic by performing their “on page” magic. The measurement of success then was how many hits a day they got.

        Fast forward a few years. SEO moved on to encompass “off page” as well as Analytics, Conversion Optimisation, Social Media, etc. etc. But the purpose behind the hiring of the SEO remained the same. Create more sales on the website.

        This is the last paragraph. Promise. It brings me up to today, and this is where I correlate the current needs of many businesses to your “kick ‘em” directive. Companies still desire to create more sales from their web properties, but now it’s almost like herding cats. There are just so many different facets to SEO that I maintain it’s created a place for what amounts to a General Contractor with complete control over the site.

        OK, just one more paragraph. Really. Sometimes a GC has to tell the home owners to be that creating a stream to run underneath their living room isn’t gonna happen. And that with the budget they have, they’re not getting wall to wall Corian counters with Solid Cherry cabinets for their kitchen. I have totally rambled and I need another couple of paragraphs to dig myself out but I did promise to end this with this paragraph. Twice.

        • Mike Tekula says:

          I disagree.

          I think to say that Analytics, Conversion Optimisation, Social Media, etc, etc are all now under the umbrella of SEO misses entirely.

          These are all much bigger than SEO.

          If you want to say that things like social media and content marketing can have positive SEO effects – well I’ll go along with you on that.

          But “creating more sales on the website” is not SEO. SEO can be part of your aim in achieving that goal, but SEO isn’t the goal itself.

          What you’re describing is more in line with what John Andrews calls “Competitive Webmastering.” SEO can be part of the competition, part of what you do to drive up sales/awareness/etc, but if you’re doing all of the above you’re not an SEO – you’re much more than that. You’re handling the entire web strategy.

          • goodnewscowboy says:

            I didn’t explain myself well enough. As an aside, the article I aspired to write was titled “Does SEO need a new name?”

            I agree that technically, SEO is something different. But I added the historical context because, IMO when SEO was born websites were practically babies. And there were only two possible jobs to be had. Web Designer or SEO. The designer, well… designed. The SEO brought in the traffic. And for business sites, the sole purpose of the traffic was increased income.

            At the time it was called SEO but if it had been given a different name, say Web Strategist as you suggested, then the title would be able to stay the same, but the methods used would be constantly evolving.

            And I consider what you wrote about above in the comments as one of the evolving facets. And that’s taking charge of the client when it needs done.

            Anyway Mike, I’m sure this is just an incoherent mess I’ve written. Now you can see why I’ve never made it to posting on YOUmoz :)

  9. At the bottom of all of this lies EDUCATION. If consumers are educated, they’ll sniff out the crap a mile away. Most of these cheapskates are banking on the ignorance of the general public. Which, thankfully, we CAN do something about!

    • Mike Tekula says:

      While that’s true, the ethical minority in SEO have been saying it for like ten years…and people are still getting duped. And I have no indication that it’s getting better.

      For every well-served and well-informed client, I get 4-5 people coming to me like, “hey these guys were ‘SEOing’ our site – did they do a good job?” – then I take a look and it’s a steaming pile of dog shit. Thousands of dollars down the tube, and I have to tell them it was all for nought. That’s a pricey education.

      I do plan to keep educating people about what kind of bull shit SEO scams they might have offered to them, SEO as a topic is beaten to death, buried, dug out and beaten some more.

      What most small businesses (most of my market) need is decent, SEO-friendly website (WordPress is usually fine) and a good content marketing strategy. Not SEO services.

  10. I was in the internet marketing business just long enough to see how business owners are definitely ripped off with the ‘magic’ that SEO will do for them, never mentioning that their website is not sending the right message.
    Please keep educating the small business market!

  11. Mike,
    How ironic it is that I’ve found your post. I am in the same position as you only worse. I went into sales after college as I thought I was a people person and sales would afford me the opportunity to generate a sizable income and a varible schedule. Who wants to sit behind a desk for 30 years, I told myself.
    I always thought myself an honest person who despised liars and cheats. Although relatively successful over 15 years, I found both clients as well as bosses becoming increasingly dishonest. I walked away from a company in Aug. of 2007, while holding the #1 salesperson ranking and haven’t been able to find suitable employment since.
    I find myself questioning everybody and everything as a result. Many companies pitch the integrity line during interviews etc., but it all comes down to revenue in the end.
    How are you coping with your outlook and job ops ? What advice would you give someone in hindsight ? Is there a way to work for a corp. and maintain your integrity ?

    • Mike Tekula says:

      Hi Chris,

      I’m not actively looking for job ops, really, and I haven’t been since I left my last job. I’m self-employed. So I can’t offer much advice on the job hunt.

      But you’ve had a unique experience – 15 years of successful sales and you walked away because of your personal integrity. That says something about your character.

      Things I’m wondering:

      • What did you learn in 15 years of sales that you can use to teach sales now?
      • What can you show people that will help them sell with integrity?

      There’s a new version of selling on the web: it’s called education. The platform is here, the overhead is cheap. So what about starting your own blog/website where you teach people how to sell without becoming slimebags in the process?

      You won’t see overnight success – that idea is a myth – but over time you can build a healthy following. Even if it doesn’t grow into a sustainable business, it’s a great creative outlet and the perfect differentiator when you’re tossing your resume into the stack.

  12. Great post – very similar to how I felt back in 2001 after I graduated. In the five to six years I worked solo I learned a lot, but eventually I found my way back into the agency life. One thing I liked about working solo was being able to talk to clients about their marketing tactics – not just the design of their logo or stationery. Once I started at the agency, I found that I rarely spoke directly to clients and had nothing to do with marketing, but in the last two years I’ve been included in client meetings and speaking more with clients.

    • Mike Tekula says:

      Thanks!

      I’d say there are pros and cons to both. On the one hand it’s good to be able to discuss the big picture with some clients. On the other, a lot of clients make that incredibly frustrating – you realize their thinking is just backwards and to get them in the right place will take more than you’re capable of (and, frankly, a lot more than you’ll be paid for).

      In my case, I definitely wouldn’t rule out the agency world entirely, but I wouldn’t go back unless I found a gig I really liked with good people and the right culture. If I had to choose between scrubbing toilets and going back to one of my old agency jobs at this point it would be a pretty tough call. There may be more honor in scrubbing toilets.

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