As a 13-year-old living in Melbourne, Australia, YPO member Harry Sanders watched as a bad search engine optimization (SEO) contract almost sunk his father’s boat licensing company.

He decided in that moment to learn SEO to help his dad. Turned out, he was pretty good at it.

So good, in fact, that he caught the attention of a local marketing agency. They were so impressed with his work that they hired him on for a part-time role. Through this early exposure, Sanders learned that the digital marketing landscape as it was operating at the time, was not all it was cracked up to be.

“It was a bit of a client churn factory,” he says. “The client would ask for something and our boss would tell us to just say yes and figure out it later. We were always scrambling to figure things out, and we were never doing anything good. That never quite sat right with me.”

So, at just 17 years old — fresh out of high school — Sanders created StudioHawk, an agency that specializes in SEO. Now six years later, StudioHawk employs more than 50 SEO specialists, has 300 clients, and was named the 2019 SEMrush Agency of the Year, as well as Optus Media Marketing and Advertising Business of the Year. All of this without using lock-in contracts like the one that trapped his father.

Successful SEO is not happenstance

The more optimized a website is, the higher it will rank in search results, and the more likely consumers will click on it. A glaring example of the importance of search rankings: only 1% of people even make it to the second page of results.

When a company wants to secure a front page search placement on Google, they come to StudioHawk. Sanders and his team create a customized SEO strategy by building the reputation of a company’s website with tools such as unique content, product information and backlinks. They also have their own proprietary software, HawkVision, which they use to develop, track and forecast SEO campaigns.

Not only does StudioHawk make their clients more searchable, but they also harness the search data to help their clients make strategic decisions.

“We work with a lot of multibillion-dollar brands and their buying teams to determine what products they should place for the next year based on trends and keywords,” says Sanders. “There is power in this data that we can pull.”

I firmly believe anyone can learn anything. So, we went out looking for people with the right attitude who can learn, and who can create successes. Now we have created some of the best SEO specialists in the world. ”
— Harry Sanders, Founder & Director, StudioHawk share twitter

Despite the benefits, Sanders says too many people still view SEO as an afterthought. Or they assume things will just work themselves out.

“The biggest misconception is that it’s this magical thing, that someone waves a wand and makes things happen. When in reality, SEO is an incredibly well-documented, researched and trackable form of digital marketing in 2021. It’s not something you can just throw money at and hope for the best.”

An educated client is a good client

As StudioHawk’s client list grew, Sanders and his team continuously faced the same outdated questions about SEO.

Harry’s response? Launching an educational arm to his agency, Hawk Academy, in September 2020.

“Many wouldn’t know what good SEO is if it hit them in the face,” says Sanders. “So, we could keep doing what we were doing, or we could take it upon ourselves to educate our clients so they would truly understand the benefits of working with us.”  

A digital platform that offers more than 22 hours of educational content, Hawk Academy offers a behind-the-scenes look at StudioHawk’s own optimization strategies.

“Most people aren’t really taught about this sort of thing, so there’s not enough talent to go around,” says Sanders. “The demand is so high for SEO talent and the supply is so low.”

In just nine short months, Hawk Academy has ushered in 6,000 SEO students, made up of business owners, marketing managers and students through partnerships with Australian universities. That last group, the university students, has become a valuable talent pipeline for Sanders as his agency continues to grow.

Hire for attitude

When Sanders bills StudioHawk as an agency that specializes in SEO, he means it. He employs no sales team, only SEO specialists from junior positions to himself. And whether he plucks talented university students from Hawk Academy, or he finds potential employees elsewhere, he hires for cultural fit above all else, with a mentality of “hire for attitude and train for competency.”

Sanders explains, “Rather than people who have being doing SEO who are disenfranchised with it, I found these people who were hungry, passionate and eager. I have no room for people who are not passionate. I firmly believe anyone can learn anything. So, we went out looking for people with the right attitude who can learn, and who can create successes. Now we have created some of the best SEO specialists in the world.”

But how to keep his home-grown talent? For Sanders, leadership training is key. He also makes sure employees get involved in the ethos of the company early on.

“That is where people start realizing what contribution they have to the organization,” says Sanders.

Continued education is another way to keep his employees happy. Everyone — including Sanders — is constantly learning and staying up-to-date on SEO trends and forecasting.

“I’m all about win-win situations,” he says. “If you’ve worked with me, you’ve heard me say, ‘how do we make sure we are the best option?’ It’s a constant driver throughout the business both for my staff and for our clients. “It’s important to have a brand that cares about the people and makes sure they actually want to work there.”

When asked about his proudest moment so far as a young entrepreneur, he does not name his client count, profits or awards, but the career journey of his third hire, Lawrence Hitches. Though Lawrence did not have a strong technical background, he worked his way through the ranks and is now StudioHawk’s General Manager.

“That gives me a lot of confidence knowing that the company is shaped in a way that people can progress if they are good,” he says.

More than keywords

In 2020, StudioHawk expanded into London. Sanders says he is eyeing the United States for his next satellite office, and as the company expands, so does the scope of what we mean when we talk about SEO.

“It’s just changed so fundamentally to where companies don’t just need a brand, but also an entity: What around them is referencing them? Who is citing them? What makes them important and different? All of that is what Google is now striving to understand so they can better inform searches,” says Sanders. “It’s so much bigger than putting your keywords on a page.”

He points to Google’s quality guideline E-A-T (Expertise, Authoritativeness, Trustworthiness) as an example of the increased importance of a company’s authenticity.

“Good SEO specialists should be focused on creating good experiences for your users, not figuring out ways to manipulate them,” says Sanders, who says his goal is for StudioHawk to be the best in the world at SEO.

“It’s a big investment to build out a company that you consider to be the best,” admits the 23-year-old. “But I have the time.”