Brian Dean is an SEO expert. His business Backlinko provides SEO training and strategies. He offers first-rate advice on link building, SEO, content marketing and monetization. After reading Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Workweek, Brian was inspired to become an online entrepreneur – eventually setting up numerous websites and learning from his success & failures. Since February of 2010 he’s been living the dream: working as a digital nomad and travelling in countries like Thailand, Japan, Spain, and Turkey. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany.
Easyspace recently caught up with Brian for a chat:
Q1. Brian, tell us a little bit about your background and what led you to working in digital marketing
I never set out to become a marketer. I actually studied nutrition in college and trained to become a registered dietitian.
Even though I was interested in nutrition, as a student, I always felt like I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole. The culture was anti-change. It drove me nuts.
After a year of gritting my teeth as a PhD student, I had enough. I dropped out, packed my car full of my belongings and drove back to my hometown in Rhode Island.
Unfortunately, the pile of job offers that I was expecting to roll in never came. I was stuck in my parent’s basement with no money and no prospects.
Then one day I had an idea:
What if — instead of searching in Google for information and getting 10 blue links to choose from — you could type in a keyword and get your answer right away.
For example, if you typed in: “How many calories are in an apple”, my search engine would say: “There are 150 calories in an apple”.
(In retrospect, this is something Google is doing more and more of. Their recent Hummingbird update set out to scale this concept.)
Because I knew nothing about creating a search engine — or a business — I went to my local Barnes and Nobel to peruse their small business section. And I stumbled upon this book with an infomercial-style title: The Four Hour Workweek.
That book showed me that anyone could start a successful business…even a bum living in his parent’s basement like me.
That’s when I decided to put my job hunt on pause and start a business online.
Q2. In the beginning you set up various websites / web businesses and most failed. How did you motivate yourself not to give up and switch to being a 9-5 employee?
That’s true: I failed several times before I put the pieces together and build something that actually made any money.
My first “business” (it was such a disaster I’m reluctant to call it a business) was an information product that helped people recover from chronic back pain. It did OK considering I had no clue what I was doing. But it wasn’t enough to pay the bills.
I did actually work a job in New York City as a dietitian during the first year or so of building that information product business. But after over a year of not getting anywhere, I decided to start freelance writing. Not exactly The Four Hour Workweek. But I thought, “At least I wouldn’t have to work at a job anymore.”
Freelance writing was actually great because it taught me how to be disciplined and work without anyone telling me what to do…and how to manage my time.
And it gave me the financial stability (and courage) to quit my job. And I’ve never looked back from that decision.
Since then I’ve had a number of ups and downs (like any entrepreneur), but I haven’t considered getting another job. Even when I arrived in Hong Kong with $20 in my bank account, I knew that I would figure something out. And I did.
Since then I’ve realized that when your back’s against the wall you’ll do what it takes to survive.
Q3. Tell us about your current business Backlinko.
Backlinko is an SEO training business that gives marketers practical strategies they can use to get more search engine traffic.
The focus of the content is giving people practical strategies they can use to get more backlinks — one way links that point to your site from other sites.
Although Google has more than 200 ranking signals, the most important thing they look at when ranking pages is the number and quality of links pointing to that page. In short, the more links you receive from authoritative sites in your industry, the higher you’ll rank (this is commonly referred to as “Link popularity“).
80% of SEO is figuring out how to get those links. There are literally hundreds of strategies that people have developed over the years.
But here are a few techniques that are safe and effective:
• Guest posting: As long as you publish guest articles on high-quality sites that are related to yours, you can use this strategy to generate high quality links.
• Infographics: A bit pricey for some small businesses, but infographics are a high-ROI strategy for generating links and traffic.
• A blog: A blog that regularly publishes great content (like this one) is a fundamental SEO and link building technique that will never go out of style.
Q4. How & where do you learn about SEO, etc? With Google regularly changing their algorithm which effects website rankings, it must be difficult to stay up to date with what are the best SEO tactics to implement.
That’s a good question.
Yes, the nuances of SEO change all the time thanks to Google’s ceaseless algorithm updates.
But the fundamentals of successful SEO — like producing a great site with great content, finding keywords that potential customers search for, promoting your content and building links with email outreach — haven’t changed in 15-years.
Something that’s helped me is to NOT read about every new wrinkle in the Google algorithm and instead just execute what I know works really well.
Q5. How difficult was it setting up your business, growing the business, getting customers, promoting it, etc?
It was extremely difficult.
But more than that, it was just a ton of “butt in seat time”.
As you alluded to, there are so many little things that go into building a business. I outsource and hire experts whenever I can, but there’s still quite a few loose ends that are on me to take care of.
So I’d say the hardest part wasn’t learning how to do it (there are tons of fantastic free guides and paid courses that showed me how to execute almost every piece of my business), but putting in the hours to get it done.
Q6. How do you market your business?
I market primarily with content: content on my blog and content on other people’s sites (like this interview). That content opens up other marketing channels — like social media and email — that I can tap into.
By far my #1 source of traffic is from Google organic search. That’s (obviously) something I focus on when marketing any site online because the traffic from Google tends to convert much better than from other channels (like social media).
Q7. Do you use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, etc, to promote your website? How successful has it been for you? Any advice on how businesses can use social media to promote themselves?
I do…but not that much.
I’ve worked with clients in almost every vertical and haven’t found social to convert nearly as well as search or referral traffic from other sites.
Social hasn’t been a rousing success for Backlinko because I don’t invest a lot of time and resources behind it. That being said, I do recommend having an “outpost” for your business on every major social media site online. Even if you’re not super active, just create a nice, full profile and get it out there.
Over time you’ll accumulate a trickle of followers that you can later leverage if you ever decide to put a lot of effort into that network.
Q8. What mistakes have you made in your businesses, and what would you have done differently?
So many that it’s hard to keep track.
But here two some of the biggest that I’ve made (and see a lot of other people making):
Not focusing on ONE thing at a time: When I launched my information product I was all over the place and had absolutely NO strategy or game plan. I’d read an article about how Twitter was a huge traffic source, so I’d spend a week on Twitter. Then I’d read about how you need to do Facebook ads, so I’d ditch Twitter and work on that. I never got anywhere. Only when I dedicated my time and energy to ONE technique did I start to see results.
Not investing in my education: A mistake I made early on was learning from blog posts and $69 ebooks. Like anything in life, you get what you pay for from education. So I’ve invested a lot of money in courses and training to learn how to grow a blog, how to write better and how to hire a VA. And it’s helped me a lot because I have a step-by-step plan that shows me how to get a result instead of a hundred blog posts that give me a list of tips.
I feel if you can avoid those two mistakes you’ll be ahead of most other people that are also just starting out.
Q9. You are from the USA and you’ve now visited and lived in more than 25 countries, and you currently live in Berlin Germany. Why did you decide to live & work abroad?
Growing up I didn’t travel very much. Most of my vacations were in other parts of New England.
That was nice, but I always wanted to see the world. I just thought world travel was something that only the super-rich could do.
After reading The Four Hour Workweek and Vagabonding by Rolf Potts, I realized that travelling was something I could do on almost any budget.
Since heading to my first destination — Thailand — in early 2010, I’ve never looked back. I love The States and may go back there someday, but I like the added flavor that living in a different country adds to day-to-day life.
Q10. Once you decided to go travelling, what business/IT processes did you put in place to help you while working on the road?
I actually didn’t have any processes in place when I first started out. That was actually a good thing because I wasn’t tempted to check my email while sitting on a beach in Malaysia.
But as my business became more of a priority in my life, I needed to take my business operations on the road.
Something that actually helped me was an insight by Chris Guillebeau that “You can manage a new project from the road but you can’t start one“.
That’s so true that it hurts.
Since reading that I’ve put all of my focus on managing projects while I travel and focus on starting new ones when I’m living somewhere.
That alone has made sure that I keep things going when I travel instead of trying to start something new…which never works.
Q11. As a “Digital Nomad” what equipment/resources/tools do you use for your “mobile office” which allows you to work while travelling/living abroad?
I actually don’t use too many tools specifically for on the road business.
Most offices today are already digital and mobile, which is all you really need to work abroad.
Most tools that anyone uses — like Gmail, Elance and Skype — work just as well on the road. I just probably use them more often while traveling than I do when living on one spot.
Q12. What’s it like running your own business? Describe your typical day.
It’s hard to answer that question because it depends so much on the day.
Most days running my own business is amazingly fulfilling, excising and awesome.
But every so often I get frustrated with a project that didn’t work out or a freelancer that flaked out on me and I kind of wish that I wasn’t the one in charge.
On most days I spend the majority of my work time producing content, either for my site or to promote Backlinko on other sites.
Q13. Where does that drive to be your own boss come from? Why did you decide the life of a 9-5 employee was not for you?
I found that — once you try freelancing or owning a business — you don’t need much drive to stick with it.
As I said, most of my work days are fulfilling and enjoyable. I know a lot of people in 9-5 jobs who feel the same way in their job. So for them, it may make more sense for them to stick with what they’re doing.
For me, I didn’t feel like I was doing what I wanted until I left the traditional workforce.
Q14. Which entrepreneur/person has inspired you the most & why?
As I mentioned, Timothy Ferris has been a huge inspiration for me.
Before reading his book I always thought that running a business and being an entrepreneur was something reserved for people born with a special skill or had some sort of brilliant idea.
Tim made me realize that anyone could do it.
Q15. What advice would you give to somebody thinking of starting their own business?
I’d recommend that they just do it.
Today you don’t need to quit your job and empty your life savings to start a business. You just need to validate your idea and then go for it
The App Sumo Wantrepreneur course is GREAT. It teaches you how to test your ideas before you commit so that you actually start.
Q16. What are your future plans?
I’m just gonna keep on doing what I’m doing:
building the Backlinko brand and serving SEO That Works customers (my SEO training course).
Thanks Brian, from everyone at Easyspace
If you want to find out more about Brian and his business Backlinko, then click on the link below for more info:
Lastly, below is a great interview Brian recently did on YouTube at Marketing Festival: