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Sean Si: Bootstrapped Founder, SEO Myths & Prayers Answered

· Philippines,Southeast Asia,Thought Leaders,Mentorship,Podcast Episodes

The most important things that you should have are mentors who you’re accountable to. I cannot stress how important that is. And mentors don’t have to be like gurus or enlightened people. They’re just people you trust, and people who have gone the way ahead of you. I mean, don’t ask someone who’s poorer than you to be your mentor. Ask someone who’s better than you, who is more successful than you, who has more experience than you to help you out. And believe it or not, these people will help you out ‘cause I find that people with good experience and with good success are willing to help other people out. - Sean Si

Sean Si does speaking engagements throughout the Philippines. He is the CEO and founder of SEO Hacker and the host of the LeadershipStack podcast. He has led his team through a decade of the chaos of starting up and the upward slog of scaling up. Today SEO Hacker is a multi-million peso company that has weathered times of crisis time and again. He has shared the stage and worked with some of the biggest names in the public speaking industry

Jeremy Au: (00:30)
Hi, Sean, so excited to have you on the BRAVE show!

Sean Si: (00:34)
I’m excited to be here, thank you for having me.

Jeremy Au: (00:36)
Yeah I think you represent lots of topics that our listeners have been asking about which is Philippines being a founder being a podcaster being a public speaker and you check off all these things and you have a sense of humor as well so I'm excited to get this going.

Sean Si: (00:52)
The honor is mine and the excitement is mine and I just want to add value to your audience today and it’s very interesting to know that people in your show are interested about our country. That's really good to hear.

Jeremy Au: (01:03)
Yeah, it's not just Southeast Asians that are curious for the Philippines, people across the world are saying there's some opportunities here. For those who don't know you yet, how would you introduce yourself professionally?

Sean Si: (01:21)
I'm a guy who's in love with the idea of helping other people get them off the ground with their leadership & entrepreneurial skills and I basically manipulate search results for a living. I’m an SEO guy and digital marketing is my bread and butter

Jeremy Au: (01:38)
Amazing and could you share a little bit more about some of your hobbies like podcasting and all these other things as well?

Sean Si: (01:46)
Podcasting, I love doing it, I wouldn't say it's a hobby. It's a work of love, for sure. My hobbies would definitely be playing computer games, going out camping with the family, collecting toys as you can see it in my background if you guys are watching from video, and also playing with my kids and my wife, so my wife's getting into playing Tetris on Switch and so I got to play Tetris on Switch. That sums it up.

Jeremy Au: (02:16)
Tetris on Switch, that's very 1980s, I gotta say, but probably higher resolution, I guess.

Sean Si: (02:24)
Yeah, happy wife, happy life.

Jeremy Au: (02:38)
So what was it like growing up and studying in the Philippines and slowly making your way into the technology sector?

Sean Si: (02:47)
I grew up in a family that is, I would say, middle class, if that makes sense. My dad has a hardware business but we got enough to have food on the table, to study in school and finish all the way through college, but we weren't really rich; I wasn't born with a silver spoon. If you saw my dad's office which he closed down because of the pandemic 'cause this is not doing well. If I locked you up in the restroom of my dad's office like his own restroom you'd get mad at me for sure. It wasn't great, but it got us by and my dad would ask me to work there since I was in grade three. I would be a person who would carry stuff to and fro from the hardware to the truck and back and then in high school he'd asked me to file stuff, stamp some stuff, secretarial work. In college I had to sell stuff all the way to the province so I drive the entire day, go to the dirty hardware stores and ask them hey do you need brown paint, do you need metro wires, do you need long pipes and that was very difficult…I mean I got a 1% Commission from my dad and he said it's industry standard. So, if I sold 1,000,000 pesos it's just 10,000 pesos for me and in U.S. dollars, a million pesos is like 20,000 US. Now, it get like less than $200. That's it for a month's pay. I knew the value of hard work and school was also hard. We studied English, Chinese, and Filipino. From the get go, you're like a trilingual child here in the Philippines. It wasn't easy 'cause you had to memorize a lot of stuff especially because Chinese is rarely used, even in my parental home, we wouldn't speak Chinese in my parental home. It would be Tagalog and English, for the most part. So that memorization kind of sharpened my mind, at least I'd like to believe that, and how I got into the tech industry is I started a blog when I was in my last year of college. That blog was about my faith. Its name is God and You. I wrote about my Christian walk and no one was reading my stuff so I asked Google hey how do I increase my subscribers in traffic? Google kept coming back saying SEO SEO SEO and during that time I had no idea what SEO was and a lot of companies here in the Philippines had no idea and didn't care. I researched about it and I realized it's something that could be big 'cause like Yellow Pages was fast going out the window. I didn't see a lot of Yellow Pages anymore when I would look for something it would be through Google search and I said it's just common sense you know this is gonna be somewhere in the future it might be big so I doubled down on it. I did a lot of freelancing and built SEO hacker from 1300 pesos to start this like $60 US…that's my capital, I had no money to start with. I failed 28 units in college, they wanted to kick me out. Wasn't good for a starting career. One of the first things that the company you're applying for is gonna ask is your transcript of records. Show them 28 smiling faces there, they're not gonna be happy. So, virtually, I was unemployable and that propelled me to start my own business.

Jeremy Au: (06:14)
Wow, that was crazy. And thanks so much for sharing. I think your childhood and how you pull yourself up by your bootstraps to really get started. I think thanks for the very frank perspective, which is that you started business obviously a desire to be an owner and so forth and you know value of money but also because the fact that you’re virtually unemployable as well, so thanks for that. Did you feel weird or alone because one of the people becoming a business owner versus becoming a professional, I remember a lot of friends are basically like, hey, if you are becoming an entrepreneur out of college, that means you couldn’t get a job. And so it is a bit of a shame or guilt dynamic there as well. Just wondering if you felt any of that yourself or from other people.

Sean Si: (06:58)
There’s actually a very interesting stigma. I have never thought about that. I guess maybe here in the Philippines, it’s not seen that way. It’s actually the other way around where if you start a business, people kind of look at you differently, but in a positive way that you rolled the dice, you got guts and you are able to create your own destiny. So I guess it’s a cultural thing. Here, There’s no downside to it unless your business fails in a spectacular way where everyone knows that you failed and you owe money to people. I guess that’s the only way that you’re going to get a bad stigma out of it. Otherwise, it’s the other way around where people admire you for it.

Jeremy Au: (07:39)
Now that’s really interesting. And there you are building out your business. How big was it when you decided to go into that full time after graduation?

Sean Si: (07:53)
When I graduated, one of the miracles of my life is I applied for HP 'cause, an upperclassman, went back to LaSalle, my college and told me, hey, you know, HP is a really good company. They pay you a starting salary of $500. That's before taxes after taxes like less than 200 bucks. So they give you all of these allowances, all these bonuses. And I was like, OK. Yeah, sure. Hey, if you could recommend me to get into HP, that’d be great. But with my 28 failing units, unlikely. So I tried it. For some strange miracle, I got in, but I worked there only five months, and not because HP is not a great place to work. It’s a fantastic place to work in, but SEO hacker, I was working on it on the side even before HP, it was making like four times my salary in HP without the taxes, without the commute, without having to buy lunch and dinner, without going over time in my work, it just doesn’t make sense for me to keep my day job. I resign properly. Good turnover, all respects and I just told them that this is the opportunity I have, I have to double down on this. Otherwise, it’s gonna fail. ‘cause, there’s no one there. And I’m doing it spare time. I’m a freelancer. And that’s when I went all in with SEO hacker. I got like, four clients during that time and I was outsourcing bits and pieces like I was outsourcing some copywriting work, some link building working. SEO is a very big practice on its own. If you look at digital marketing and you look at social media marketing and ads in all of these things, SCO hacker is like a giant on its own compared to all the other practices or facets of digital marketing. I was trying to juggle it and I didn’t have funding. No partners, everything’s bootstrap. So you could say that I still own like the entire company I was sole proprietor until 2015 and I had to incorporate because one of my clients is one of the biggest malls here in the Philippines. And when you say mall in the Philippines, you know it’s really big ‘cause Filipinos love malls. They only deal with corporate entities. So I had to incorporate then.

Jeremy Au: (10:00)
Wow. Amazing. So what are some myths and misconceptions about the SEO agency industry business?

Sean Si: (10:08)
Sadly, one of the misconceptions is if you’re an SEO agency in the Philippines, you’re supposed to be cheap and you’re supposed to be practicing it in a grey, shady way. I know that it has the same stigma with agencies in India where you get SEO very cheap because they’re doing some shady SEO tactics. In the Philippines, I decided to be the first purely ethical SEO provider. So we call it White Hat where you do it all ethical. Completely following Google’s guidelines and standards, and that’s what we’re best known for. And because of that, people want to do it Gray or shady. It’s because it’s a lot cheaper. You automate some stuff and Google doesn’t like that. And then I realize Google only hires the brightest minds. And they’re going to catch up to it. And if they catch up to some of your clients and penalize them, that's not going to be good business for you. So I focused on doing it all ethical, but also that made me the most expensive SEO provider here in the country. So I realized that I had to back it up by good branding. And I went for the keyword “SEO Philippines”, which is arguably the hardest keyword in the country and ranking number one, we’ve been at the top spot, at least at the top three spots for the last 11 years, which is the lifetime of my business since I was a freelancer and that has worked really well for us as a strategy because most of my clients come from that keyword and they know that because we’re number one, we’re also the most expensive because of that, even though because we’re doing things White Hat. So that’s the strategy we took.

Jeremy Au: (11:46)
So lots of founders obviously hear that and be like, Oh my God, I would love to be number one or top three for my keyboard. Whatever it is like “quantum computing Singapore” or “computer vision Southeast Asia”. What advice would you normally give them? Because they’re young, they’re starting out, they have a limited budget. What’s the three things to make sure they take away. Minus all the introductions and all the BS. Just three things that you wish all of them just went off and did?

Sean Si: (12:16)
One of the first things that I would tell them is – SEO is a long game. You're investing in a blank lot. You wanted to make money. If you want to just turn it into a parking lot, just invest a couple of thousand dollars, pour cement, that's it. Turned it into a parking lot, it's not going to make a lot of money over time, but if you want to turn it into a building, into a skyscraper, it’s going to make a lot more money. But you need a lot more time and a lot more budget that you’re going to be pouring into it. SEO is a lot like that. That is one of the things that a lot of business owners, especially young startup founders, don’t understand. They think SEO is going to kick in in the next three to six months. It’s not, especially if you want to be in the top three or five spots, you’re going to have to wait a long time and you’re going to have to hire the right SEO company if you want to do it. In house that is possible, but the thing about in-house SEO people is they are a lot more relaxed compared to people working in an SEO agency where we are cutting edge. I mean we gotta know what we gotta know ‘cause people are paying us for that. That’s our livelihood. Unlike if you’re paying them in house, they’re a little bit more chill, a little bit more relaxed for you and you’re not getting the most bang out of your buck. Don’t expect to rank faster when you have people in house and they’re going to ask you to outsource anyway. That’s another thing that you have to know. SEO, there’s no magic to it. There’s no secret sauce. There’s over 200 publicly known factors that Google has published and you just gotta hit those 200 factors, make sure you hit the weightiest ones like your keyword has to be there. Your keyword has to be the right places. Your site has to load very fast. It has to be secure. At least got SSL in, your rocking HTTPS rather than HTTP. Your framework is searchable or search friendly at the get go. Maybe you’re using WordPress rather than Wix. With Wix, you’re really not gonna rank. So you have to study the framework, the coding scheme behind things. There’s so many things that you can do and it’s all online. I mean I told you, Jeremy, I studied it by myself because I was a Blogger. That’s how we started out. Now all of the experiments that I’ve done over time that have told me there are some stuff that Google is not telling us. That’s true. There are some stuff that Google will not admit they’re not going to publish that. You’re only going to know it when you do your own experiments. But that’s the secret sauce of SEO Hacker, can’t really share that. But even if you didn’t know my secret sauces, you could still rank ‘cause there’s over 200 publicly known factors.

Jeremy Au: (14:50)
I’m a classic startup founder. I raised let’s say $1,000,000 and I have 100 grand dedicated to my marketing budget. How much of that should I put into pay per click advertising versus SEO? How would you? Recommend this founder to think through about how much to budget and obviously we know there’s a conflict of interest. But since you represent SEO to some extent, I also know that you’re very straightforward kind of guy. How would you recommend someone to think about that resource allocation?

Sean Si: (15:19)
For sure, the most unbiased standpoint, and I would answer it from the most unbiased standpoint, is it would largely depend on how much your business needs to survive in X number of months. ’cause what we’re playing with is time. When you say SEM versus SEO or Google ads versus organic rankings. SEM is paid ads, SEO is organic. Not a lot of people click on paid ads. I mean to those of you tuning in right now in the live, how many people will click on paid ads? Studies show it’s just 5%. That’s not a lot. For every successful conversion or lead that you get using SCM or paid ads, multiply that by 95%. That’s what you’re going to get with SCO, which is amazing. But if your business is not going to survive for the next six months, seven months if you’re not getting any, and SEO is a long game, results could come at eight months to a year. You can't wait that long ‘cause your business is going to die. Then I would tell you allocate more to SEM. I wouldn’t give you like a specific percentage because it’s a case to case basis. If your startup has a domain name or a website that has good authority already and you’ve got a lot of SEO going on for you. Then maybe only need like three to four months’ worth of SEM to go, and the rest would be for SEO. But if you’re completely a brand new website and you have a runway that’s very limited and your VCs or asking you for results, then you gotta put more into SEM. There’s a balance. It really is a case to case basis.

Jeremy Au: (16:53)
That was probably the most crisp answer I’ve ever heard, which actually rhymes a lot with how I think about it. But I think you just made it way tighter. I love it. That was a really good answer because I think the older way that I thought about it before I heard your answer was SEO can keep compounding an advantage because if you spend, in this case, $100,000 in SEO versus SEM, the moment $100,000 is spent on marketing pay per click, the flow stops. But the work that you give the 100 grand compound over year one, year two, year three, year four, year five, and so it’s a bit of a tortoise versus the hare kind of dynamic. So that’s how I thought about it. But I love that I always think about it, which is a startup, has a certain life cycle and certain goals to hit, and it tends to push people to SEM because it’s a more immediate sugar rush to get leads and sales.

Sean Si: (17:45)
Yeah, for sure. If you’re doing like A/B testing, for example, you want to learn which landing page converts better. We’re always doing SEM because we can’t wait for SEO to like index this page and that page as well. Then we always have to do SEM. So there are use cases where you have to do SEM, but long term you are completely right. It’s SEO that’s gonna be paying in dividends. ‘cause you do the work once, lay the groundwork once, and then you maintain that it’s just going to be driving your leads perpetually.

Jeremy Au: (18:16)
So when you think about this, obviously a big tricky problem for lots of startups. It’s like, OK, I kinda get it. OK, fine. I can carve out some budget for SEO because it makes sense at least after hearing this podcast. OK, fine, only 80% would go to search engine marketing and I’ll cover 20% for SEO. But how do I know who’s a good SEO agency? Because everyone all has the same clip art on the website, the same language. So how in the world do you tell the difference between a good SEO agency versus a bad one?

Sean Si: (18:55)
Well, I could only speak for how we do it in SEO Hacker. I mean, I can’t tell you in general, this is a blanket statement, covers all SEO agencies. I could only tell you how I try to stand out. One of the strategies I mentioned earlier is to rank number one for the keyword SEO Philippines. That is our like flagship marketing strategy. We would never give that up and are always working for that. Another thing is when you come in our site, we have an explainer video and it tells you exactly what we do. And then we have a software there that would send you the automated audit of your website as well. So one of the critical things for me in choosing an SEO agency is when you run that free audit, someone immediately contacts you and tells you, hey, I got your email and I saw that you ran an audit for your website. Would you like to set up a meeting because I want to drill it down further for you. Go ahead and explain it to you where you are. Where you can get to in terms of rankings. And also you have to make sure that their ranking for their own keywords. I mean if I’m not ranking for SEO Philippines, I had got no bragging rights at all. ‘cause, if you don’t eat your own peanut butter, that just doesn’t make sense. Integrity has a lot to do with it. That’s one of our permission to play values in SEO hacker. Be a one man person, have a one man principle, who you are outside, you are at home. Who I am in this podcast is who I am to my people. The principles I teach here in this podcast are the principles I teach my people as a company, as an entire company, that’s who we are. What, we sell what you really believe in and we really use. I think that is one of the best ways for you to gauge if the SEO agency’s worth partnering with or not. If they’re not ranking for their own stuff, I highly doubt they’re going to be able to produce results for you.

Jeremy Au: (20:43)
And during pitching, what questions would you ask to differentiate between a good SEO person versus an average one?

Sean Si: (20:52)
Ah, I would say. Ask the person questions that you are going to have in case to case basis. Like I get a lot of questions at the end of my pitches. So many questions depending on the client. But they’ll ask me like, what strategy would you go for? What are some of the keywords that you’d recommend at the get go? And a person who knows SEO will have some heuristic experience with what keywords you should be targeting. For example, I have a drugstore client and if an SEO company tells you, oh, you should rank for drugstore Philippines or medicines Philippines, I think that is a pretty absurd keyword because no one’s really searching for that. But if they tell you - you should rank for medicine for cough medicine, for cold medicine, for diabetes, these things that makes a lot of sense. Not everyone would be able to think that way because it takes a lot of years to also develop that kind of keyword sense. But the best SEOs out there would know like what keyword would generate ROI for you because it’s not all about branding and marketing. When it comes to SEO, it’s about ROI. If you want branding, advertising, marketing, go to Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, run your ads there. SEO is a direct ROI channel where people were searching, they come to your site, they’re going to be a lead or buy from you right away. The person you should be talking with in a pitch should recommend keywords to you that would actually convert. That’s one of the best ways to know if you’re talking with a legit SEO agency.

Jeremy Au: (22:26)
What kind of ROI should startup tech expect? So if they carve out 100 grand for SEO, like, what’s the range of results? How should we be thinking about the impact?

Sean Si: (22:47)
Oh man, I’m gonna tell you a story. So I have one client who does flooring chemicals here in the Philippines. And this client came to me and I rebranded them. I did their logo, everything, ‘cause their company name doesn’t make sense. International Industrial Partners Inc. I asked the owner, what do you mean? He says because I want to do all sorts of businesses. It’s such a generic name that I could do any business I want and I'm like, well, what’s your business? And he’s like flooring chemicals. Is that all your business? Yes, it is. I said let’s rebrand it. So I rebranded the entire company to flooring solutions. 2018 when we broke ground with SEO, they made some 32 million pesos. Not bad. I mean, we broke ground. That’s the sort of SEO, 2019, 46 million, not so bad, plus 14 million. That’s amazing. For a lot of companies, that’s already very, very good. They got some ROI out of it especially because they’re paying a million a year to SEO Hacker and that’s it. For a million, you make 14 more million. Not so bad. 2020 came, technically, the second year we’ve been doing SEO ‘cause we started 2018 November, they made 156 million. That’s a 5X ROI. And they’re still paying me one million a year. So I’m not saying that it’s going to be the same for all companies. And the owner himself told me Sean is just this. This SEO is all the marketing and advertising we’re doing. So the 156 million peso growth, that’s all you. I’m not saying it’s the same for every industry, might be more, might be less, but I would say more or less it should be a 3 to 5 times result in revenue.

Jeremy Au: (24:26)
Wow. Everyone is most certainly listening and paying attention now. But why not go to Upwork instead of going to an agency? How would they test and evaluate?

Sean Si: (24:56)
For me. One of the things that I do as a company, if you look at all my competitors, none of them do this. My entire client portfolio is in my website. More than 100 logos are there and a lot of them are international logos. My competition, they don’t do it. ‘cause people could just go ahead and poach your clients. But with SEO Hacker, one of our strong suits, is we’re a high, touch extra mile company. So our account managers really take care of our people. So that’s very, very important to us and, because of that, I know that we’re not just going to go ahead and lose clients through poaching. Hopefully not, hasn’t happened yet, which I’m very happy about. So, with that, if you’re going to go to Upwork or Fiverr, I’d say people who should be shopping there are people who are just starting out, like a hobby website. You’re not really planning for it to make so much money, so much revenue for you, so much ROI, so much net income. Go ahead, shop in Fiverr or Upwork, where you’re rolling the dice. You’re just not sure if they’re going to produce results for you. Even if you’re paying them like $10 an hour, $10.00 an hour of nothing is more expensive than paying me, for example, 2,500 USD a month. So that’s our rate by the way, 2.5 a month and I have 50 people working on your company, on your website.

Jeremy Au: (26:13)
Yeah, I agree that time is money. What is the one thing about SEO that you’ve learnt over the past year that has surprised you?

Sean Si: (26:36)
Well, one recent experiment that Google has done and we’re publishing in the SEO Hacker blog, is they’re changing title tags to whatever they want. So my title tag for the SEO Philippines keyword literally says SEO Philippines SEO hacker. They changed it to best SEO in the Philippines. Without my permission. Nowhere in that entire webpage do you see “best SEO in the Philippines”. ‘cause I didn’t want to come out as an egoistic person, but Google literally change our title tag to that. I was like Google’s doing that now? So that’s a bit of a surprise for me. Again, we haven’t published the study yet. I have my speculations and I have my predictions about it. So you might want to watch out for that. Google’s always changing stuff. They’re always trying to experiment on things, which is good and bad at the same time. The one experimenting is actually an AI, and his name is RankBrain. I know a lot of companies are saying AI tech, it’s not AI tech, it’s just big data that they’re doing. But if you’re going to look at the real AI, Google has a real AI. That’s pretty scary. Google has a real AI, and it's in their search engines. There's two of them in their search engines and they’re mixing up the results like crazy. Like every five minutes you see changes. I came in a time when the changes in Google search results would refresh every 30 days. Every 30 days. I can do whatever I want to hope and see the change after a month. Now the changes are every five minutes. Imagine the stress I have to go through with that change with all my clients, so it's nothing new though. I mean that change happened five years ago. I know that they’re changing it up like every five minutes already. So I guess in the past year, one thing that surprised me is Google is still mixing things up. And a lot of the announcements that Google would publish in their blog, you have to not take it at face value and do your own experiments.

Jeremy Au: (28:38)
What do you think then about companies just creating whatever content they want, focus on creating good content, and then let Google nominate them?

Sean Si: (28:56)
I actually have a real story for you. So one of our clients now a good friend of mine. He started this blog and he’s like Sean, my SEO strategy’s just I’m just gonna grind. Creating so much content and producing so much content in a very fast way, it’s just grinding. He’s produced so much stuff, I would say 5 digits already like in the tens of thousands of articles there. Now, not every article is like 500 words long. Some of them are like two or three hundred, just announcements that there’s a new phone. This new phone has this. This new phone has that. So finally, after a couple of years of doing that, of grinding and just hard publishing stuff, muscling his way through content, he’s like, hey, Sean, can you check our SEO? I’m like, sure, why not? You got a lot of content there. So we engaged last year and the first few months he’s making like 6 digits of traffic a month, which is great. I mean, here in the Philippines, we have a population of 10 million in Metro Manila alone, but the Internet is not that fantastic compared to Singapore. Having six digits of traffic per month in his website is super. The first month that I touched their SEO, they had a 10% uplift and in the next three months they had a 40% uplift and we’re talking in the six digits, Jeremy, that’s the power of real SEO. He neglected that for so long that when I tweaked it a bit, boom, the magic just happened.

Jeremy Au: (30:33)
You got to share with us now what you did. There’s some analysis, obviously, but what is the scope of work that you did for a client like that?

Sean Si: (30:49)
So one of the things that we looked at would be what are the low hanging fruits that they have in terms of titling. The SEO title is very important because that is seen in the search engine results page. So we looked at their titles and of course their publisher. They’re an online tech magazine. Their titles are for social media and what we did is we didn’t change the titles of the brand new publications, ‘cause, they’re still promoting that on social media. We changed the titles of their articles that are pretty long. We call it the long form content and then we saw that the title is not optimized. The H1 tag is not optimized. When I say the H1 tag is usually the biggest font in the page that you see. That’s usually the article title as well, so the title tag different from the article title, it can be different. So we made the title tag in the article type consistent and we’re targeting one keyword alone. We also edited some of the paragraphs, so the first few paragraphs are very important. Especially the ones that are above the fold that is what the search engines see immediately when you load the page. That’s what users see immediately when you load the page. You don’t have to scroll down. When you scroll down, that’s below the fold. So, everything above the fold, we optimize and there’s 10s of thousands of content that we did this for. We also made sure that their URL structure has no stop words, so we did a little bit of redesign. They had so many ads that are just all over the place and Google doesn’t like that. And I know that Google runs their AdSense department. But the AdSense department and the Google search engines, they don't talk with each other. So the AdSense team will tell you put ads on the best, most visible places and the Google organic search team will tell you that’s going to get you deranked. We did a balance of it where we were so creative in where we want to put the ads, except for the ones that are really paying really good money for their native ads, which means that the advertiser went directly to them and told them my ads have to be here. They can’t change it. So those ads we can’t change. But the other ads, we place them elsewhere. So that improved the rankings by lot. And the traffic by a lot.

Jeremy Au: (33:08)
You’ve learnt so much over the years…were there any tough times you had to be BRAVE?

Sean Si: (33:17)
For sure. It was 2012, I think, or 2013 somewhere there. I don’t really recall specifically, but there was a time when I had 13 people in the team. This is in my book, CEO at 22. I know I just flicked that out, but you can get it from Amazon or online, can download my book. It’s basically my story from graduation to how I started my business. And I wrote this there - my bank account only had 10,000 pesos because a big account there are only like couple of TV stations here. But one of the big TV stations here, they didn’t pay for like 10 months after the contract expired. So it was a very long time and I was hoping for them to pay ‘cause I had allocated a lot of manpower for them ‘cause the work that I needed to do for them was very big. I was warned by my contact there that they pay late, but I didn’t know they paid that late. The contract is done and ten months after you haven’t paid. That hurt. First thing I did was I was panicking like where am I going to get the money? I never loaned from the bank. Never loaned money from family or friends. So when I bootstrapped I really bootstrapped. I didn’t ask money, I didn’t solicit any money from even family. So I was already quite panicky and nervous in my head. Like, where am I going to get the money? And I went into my office room. I had a small private pod there, and I knelt down and cried. And prayed. Hey, I asked God, Lord, I need help. I kid you not. Later that day, a high school friend called me up and she called me out of the blue. And we don’t really talk. And she’s like Sean, I have a referral for you. And it’s a nonprofit. And I’m like, hey, thanks. Really appreciate it. At the back of my head, I mean non-profit, how much money can that give? And later that day I got the call from the nonprofit. It’s an Australian nonprofit company here in the Philippines. And they asked me for a meeting ASAP. We booked the meeting, I went there and I closed the deal. The work was not tough. All they wanted to do was rank for their nonprofit brand name. That’s it. Non profit brand name. I mean, how hard could that be? And they paid in six digits and they paid prepaid and in postdated cheques. So I cashed that in. Of course it went in and I was able to pay my 13 people. That was like a make or break point in the lifetime of the entire company. And right now, we’re a multimillion peso company with 50 people inside and still growing, by God’s grace. But that was a time when I was very vulnerable and the first person I went to was with God. For me, it’s all about God. I’m a man of faith. I could only share with you guys what I really believe in. I’ve mentioned integrity and that’s what I believe in. God helped me. It’s a miracle. I mean, it’s a miracle. I was about to loan money from the bank and my family. And then that happened. I cannot explain it.

Jeremy Au: (36:10)
That’s a crazy story. Not the part about big companies not paying on time, that’s something we all know now. It’s crazy that you were able to hang in there and have your prayers answered. However, not all prayers get answered. How would you advise them whether to keep going or whether to change course?

Sean Si: (36:59)
For sure. One of the easiest answers I give is if you don’t want to turn the lights off when you think it’s time the electrical outlet will be pulled off from you. Because if it’s really failing, your business is failing. You really have to know when to throw in the towel and pivot. But if you have options in your capacity to do still, I mean, I was in a very tough spot, but in all honesty, I have a lot of options that I could have done. I could have loaned money from my friends and family and or the bank. I could also send the demand letter and after that. Demand letter they paid like two or three months after you have a lot of options. Exhaust all possible options, act on what you can, assess the situation, act on what you can. If that doesn’t work, then it’s time to face the music. There are brutal facts and you have the data as the entrepreneur. Is it gonna make it? If it’s not gonna make it, then throw in the towel. You paid your tuition fee. You learnt from that. What we’re all hoping for is you evaluated the experience and learnt from it. Otherwise, you paid the tuition fee for nothing. But if you evaluated the experience and you learn from it, your next startup is going to be much better.

Jeremy Au: (38:17)
Ah, that’s a good answer. And yeah, it’s so tough to do. Because when you’re in it, you're like, OK, I've been that person to my wife. It's like, hang in there one more month. Sometimes I’m right, sometimes I’m wrong. So it’s a tough one for that judgment. How does a founder maintain that sense of judgment to do what you just said, which is to explore the different options, execute quickly, be OK walking away if you have learned what you need to learn, but how does a founder like balance that internally?

Sean Si: (38:48)
The most important things that you should have, are mentors who you’re accountable to. I cannot stress how important that is. And mentors don’t have to be like gurus or enlightened people. They’re just people you trust, and people who have gone the way ahead of you. I mean, don’t ask someone who’s poorer than you to be your mentor. Ask someone who’s better than you, who is more successful than you, who has more experience than you to help you out. And believe it or not, these people will help you out ‘cause I find that people with good experience and with good success are willing to help other people out. And it doesn’t have to be daunting for you to approach them. It could be as easy as hey, can I pay for lunch? I just have a few questions to ask. Another thing is, don’t be too optimistic. There’s a story by Admiral James Stockdale. This is in the book Good To Great by Jim Collins. This is not my story, but I love that story. ‘cause Admiral Stockdale was imprisoned in the Vietnam War, tortured multiple times. And he says that his comrades who died while being a prisoner of war. They were the optimists. They all died ‘cause they were thinking we’d be out by Christmas, we’d be out by Thanksgiving, we’d be out by next summer, and their hopes were crushed and they just perished within the Vietnam prisoner camp. And Jim Collins asked him, well, what are you, if not an optimist, you knew that you were going to get out somewhere along the way, and Admiral Stockdale said you have to confront the brutal facts. Never give up your hope of knowing that you will prevail in the end, but also know where you are right now. Face the brutal facts. And as an entrepreneur, that is what we need to see, especially if things are not going our way. You know you’re going to prevail in the end, for sure. I mean, you’re going to walk out alive. That’s great. You’re not even a prisoner of camp, but face the brutal facts. If your business is really not doing well, then no, it’s not really doing well. And that’s not the end. Learn what you can from that experience and then go ahead and start another one when it’s the right time.

Jeremy Au: (40:45)
So much power in what you just said. Knowing where you are right now. I love to wrap things up here by paraphrasing the three big themes I learned from this conversation.
The first, of course, is thank you so much for sharing the reality of how you actually became a founder. How you had this childhood being entrepreneurial and working for your dad under very low commission rates and also the fact that you were a terrible student. And yet you became a founder by choice after wrapping up your blog and following where your curiosity let you to. So there’s an amazing story there.
Second, I loved all the SEO knowledge and domain expertise that you shared, dropping knowledge bombs everywhere, especially sharing the myths and misconceptions, like thinking not just about ROI, which I think a lot of people historically think about it from a big brand perspective, but also sharpening it to be what is your timeline and requirements within the next one to two years to survive as a startup. Great advice there as well as a lot of advice on how to choose the right SEO agency and how to evaluate and make sure that you’re on the right path, so just a lot of strength there.
And lastly, thank you for sharing your personal story about your prayers getting answered at one level obviously was a conversation about your faith and your integrity and the tough time that you had where you cried and had to figure stuff out for your team, since you are, at the time, a young CEO and that time I love what you did, where you have to unpack that a little bit and just talked about how that is generalizable, not just to people like you, but also founders who are going through tough times where obviously they can access mentors and be thoughtful about making sure they can explore and exhaust all other options they have while also comparing to the fact that you actually still had options as well, so I love that contrast there, but also sharing about how you have to never give up hope while still knowing where you are right now and why this is such a powerful way to wrap up this podcast. So thank you Sean for all this knowledge.

Sean Si: (42:50)
Again, it’s my honour to be here, Jeremy. I love that you gave me this opportunity and I love the questions. Brilliant questions and I’d love to do this again.

Jeremy Au: (42:59)
Can you share for people who want to learn more about your story, your services and your podcast, where should they go?

Sean Si: (42:50)
Go to Sean.Si this is my name – SEAN.SI. That’s my website. You wanna know my stuff, my ideas, my blogs? You just have to go there. We are on YouTube and Spotify and the name of my podcast is Leadership Stack. And Jeremy is going to be there sometime soon. Watch out for that. Yeah, just search for Leadership Stack on Spotify or YouTube.

Jeremy Au: (43:27)
Awesome. Thank you so much. Sean.

Sean Si: (43:28)
Awesome. Hey, Jeremy. Thanks so much and really appreciate your time.

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