Introducing John Locke
John made a mid-life career switch in 2012 and became a WordPress developer full-time, live without a net. Today, he is helping businesses get their SEO on track through his web consultancy, Lockedown Design.
Liam: This is Hallway Chats, where we talk with some of the unique people in and around WordPress.
Tara: Together, we meet and chat with folks you may not know about in our community.
Liam: With our guests, we’ll explore stories of living – and of making a living with WordPress.
Tara: And now the conversation begins. This is episode 25.
Tara: Welcome to Hallway Chats. I’m Tara Claeys.
Liam: And I’m Liam Dempsey. Today, we’re joined by John Locke. John made a midlife career switch in 2012 and became a WordPress developer, full-time, live, without a net. Today, John is helping businesses get their SEO on track through his own web consultancy Lockedown Design. John, hi, welcome.
John: How are you doing, Liam? How are you doing, Tara?
Tara: Hey John, welcome. So glad to have you on the show. I’ve heard you on some other podcasts and loved listening to you and hearing what you have to say. Super smart stuff about WordPress, all things WordPress, and content and SEO, so we’re looking forward to chatting with you today. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself for our listeners?
John: Yeah, sure. Like I said, I’m just a regular guy here in Sacramento, California. I started learning web development when I was 38, it was just where I was at. I just needed to make a switch. So I put a couple hours into that, learning web design, learning web development. Shortly after that learned WordPress and started building sites for friends and family. Then I started building client sites and I’ve been working for myself pretty much ever since, it was around 2012.
This year, I kind of made an evolutionary shift because, for the past five years, I’ve pretty much been building WordPress sites for clients or sub contracting out to large agencies, and that’s been pretty steady. But I’ve been thinking about it, carefully considering it, pivoting to being more of an SEO company. Because I can still build the sites on top of that, but involve leveraging a lot of the positioning. That’s something that I just pulled the trigger on recently. I relaunched my site just a couple of days ago and its focus is more square and center on SEO. Definitely, I will still be talking about WordPress stuff, I’m still knee-deep in the WordPress community. But just from a client perspective and the type of challenges that I want to do. That’s something that I’ve shifted my focus, and it’s a fresh challenge.
Tara: Is that something that you enjoy? Do you find yourself more and more loving the world of SEO? I’ve been learning a little bit of it myself and I can’t say that I’m finding it very easy.
John: Yeah. And it’s something that I’ve always kind of done. I mean, I’ve done SEO for my own site. I’ve done it a little bit for client sites and very early on, a couple hobby sites that I got to rank and get a lot of traffic just for fun. It is something that I’ve always had a knack for and it’s something that I have always studied. But just embracing the responsibility of what that means to try different aspects of SEO like managing content strategy, and link building is super important. And on top of the development that you need to do that. That was the thing that I was hesitant to do because here, in Sacramento, I had really been ranking really well for WordPress for a while. I think it was number one or two for last two years. Shifting away from that, it was kind of a risk but I think it’s something that is paying off because, for one, say for example, if you build a client a site, you kind of build the site and that’s kind of it. And you kind of go off and have to go find somebody else to make the site for. But with SEO campaigns, it’s more drawn out where you’re doing a retainer work for them each month for a number of months to get them to their goal. And a lot of these businesses, because I deal a lot with blue-collar businesses like manufacturing, stuff like that, and for one, they usually have not done a lot of SEO unless they’re like a really large company. There’s a lot of improvement to be done. It involves study of their competitors and looking at them and saying, “Here’s everything to do.” For that, it makes more of a foundation because I’m doing that work over the scope of months, instead of just one month or six weeks, something like that.
Tara: Yeah. Do you find that to be a relatively easy sales process for a client like that? Are they willing to spend money for that? How do you go about that sales process with them?
John: Again, that was something that definitely went into the decision to change this positioning because a lot of people that I’ve been talking to in web development and WordPress space who have been successful as generalist, either as an agency or a consultant. I don’t know what it is but this year it’s just like, I’ve seen more people that I know that have been struggling to get business. But for SEO, I think people are more willing to pay for it, and especially businesses where there’s potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line. If they see their competitors ranking above them and they have these products that they’re selling, usually thousands of dollars if you’re talking about manufacturing, for them, the potential upside is a lot. One person said to me, “If I sell two more things per month, it’s a no-brainer to do this.” I think that people are willing to spend money on SEO, they see ROI. The hard part of selling it is there’s a lot of shady SEO companies or they use a lot of double talk, they use a lot of complex language and even person, they sent me a sheet where it’s like, “This is what the competitor sent.” I said, “Half this stuff on here is stuff that would be done the first day or you already have it. It’s just the foundational stuff, it’s not really anything that’s going to make you rank. It’s just foundational stuff.”
Liam: John, let me ask you a question if I can. You have mentioned that you’re working with clients who may have no professional experience with SEO never having done it on behalf of their business or hire a consultant. What’s your experience in managing the expectations to sense that one blowout post will not guarantee two more machines per month? And the initial setup work that you’re talking about will maybe get a company out of the box but not that much farther, again, depending on the industry and what that setup work is? How do you go about walking your clients through that understanding to the point where they know that paying you for one week of work, or maybe even for a month of work, isn’t really going to deliver the kind of dividends they’re likely to want after just one month? How do you shape their expectations when they’re totally new to the game?
John: That’s an excellent question. The first thing I tell them is, they say, “Well, what can we expect?” And one of the first things that I’ll do is I’ll give them a list and I’ll say, “Here’s you for all the search terms and here’s your competitors, here’s where they’re ranking, here’s where you’re ranking.” And I’ll tell them straight up, getting to number one, if anybody guarantees you that, it’s impossible to gauge because even the Google employees don’t know everything that goes into the algorithm at this point because they’re introducing machine learning. What I tell them is, with their competitors, I’ll usually find one or two that are doing some black hat stuff and I’ll say, “These guys are ranking well but what they’re doing, if Google catches them, they’re not going to rank as well.” I just tell them, “Here’s what I want to do, we’re going to do link building and we’re going to do content, we’re going to look at the technical SEO.” I’ll lay that out then, that’s actually a first step I do is SEO audit and I’ll say like, “Here’s everything that you need to do and here’s why, and here’s what we’re going to do.” I think it demystifies it. I think their expectations are set that we’re getting closer to the goal, and I tell them, “You can’t just sprinkle magic SEO dust on your page and rank it. It doesn’t work like that.” Because I think small businesses, they have the expectation that it just works that way. But even like a lot of changes that you make, Google might not pick them up immediately. We’ve been seeing a lot more of that lately, too. It doesn’t have an instant effect.
Liam: I like the phrase that you use is we’re getting closer to the target. I think that’s a really good perspective. SEO is a constantly moving target, and the fact that we get to number one or page one today doesn’t mean we’re going to be here in a month’s time.
Tara: Yeah, it’s not a concrete thing, I’ve been told. I was just doing Rebecca Gill’s Mastermind that she had for SEO consultants and I like, “This is how you do it, this is the right way and do it.” And I was looking at, for example, website design services and some keyword tools. Website design and web design are basically the same thing, but in another industry, another thing, there may be two different words that you’re trying to rank for. It’s not like there’s a hard and fast rule so that makes it very hard to wrap your head around as a consultant, as a person who does that, but also, if it’s hard for us, hard for our clients, your clients, it must be even harder to explain that.
John: I’m glad that you brought that up, Tara. That’s a really important thing. One of the things that I do right at the start is keyword research because for example, a client that I’ve been working with recently, they were ranking really well for this particular, there’s one particular term, it’s like a four-word phrase, but if you actually look at how many people are searching for that exact phrase, it’s like, none. But if you reverse the words or take one word out and just make it a three-word phrase, it’s like, now, we have people searching for that. One of the things, it’s like, “Yeah, you’re ranking well for that but no one’s searching for it so we need to change how we’re putting that in there.” And that got them more traffic.
Tara: Yeah, you can really drive yourself crazy with that, I think, if you’re not a patient person. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack sometimes, that one word switch can make a huge difference. That appeals to a certain type of personality, I think, not mine but it sounds like it’s yours, and I know it’s Rebecca’s so that’s a skill but it’s also a passion, I think.
Let’s switch gears now a little bit and as much as I could probably spend this whole entire time talking about SEO since I’ve been trying to learn it better myself, but let’s talk a little bit about your journey and your view of success, how you define success. You’re changing gears, you’ve really thought about what you want to do and how you’re defining success based on your business and shifting gears a little bit. Tell us a little bit about that, how you define success and where you find yourself in that path, journey? Sometimes people will say it’s not a journey but in the road pursuing success maybe, where you find yourself?
John: That’s excellent, too. I think a lot of people define success as revenue, and this year I’m going to make more money than I ever made in my life, even more than when I was working two jobs in my previous path. And that’s cool and all, but like my wife says, “Even if you got to an X amount of revenue per year, you’d probably still want more.” I’m like that. But the true success of it, where I’m at now, is to choose who I get to work with, if I don’t like somebody, I don’t have to work with them. I get to arrange my day the way that I want to. I can go spend time with my granddaughter or stuff like that, and I have the ability to do that. And I’m happy in my path. I think money is just kind of a product of the value that you’re already putting out into the universe, and if you’re truly looking out for other people, I think the money is going to come. You have to be good at what you do, you can’t not work hard at what you’re doing. But I think I’m already successful as far as that because I’m actually crafting my reality from where I wanted it to be seven, eight years ago. I’ve achieved that and I’m like, “Man, I should have aimed higher seven or eight years ago.” That gives me something to shoot for in the next phase.
Liam: I love that you’re higher than you expected to be and that you should have aimed higher, that’s awesome. John, with that definition of success then, what’s the single most important thing you’re doing every day to achieve or maintain that success as you’ve defined it?
John: Every day, I’m carving out time to work on my own business. That includes business development, whether that’s going to a local Chamber of Commerce meeting or touching base with a prospect or a client, or what I was doing the other day, sending out mailers and printing out SEO reports of people who are already spending money on AdWords and mailing them as just kind of a cursory SEO report in the mail. Anything to generate business and work on my own business, and put that first because I think it’s really, really easy to get caught up in client work. You could work 24/7 on client work if you wanted to but I think it is important to put your own business development first and that’s something I’m doing every day.
Liam: That’s great. When you’re talking about carving out time, what does that mean? Do you look at your to-do list and say, “I’ve got to get these two client things done at some point today so I’m going to take care of this.” This is development task first or is it more of a schedule issue, the first hour and a half of your day is always walk down design time and after that it switches to client focus? What does carving out mean for you?
John: Yeah, it’s exactly like what you’re saying, it’s carving out a certain amount of time each day. And something that I do as well, because I know that not every day you can do 17 things, so each day I’ll just the notes app on my phone and I’ll put in there, “Here’s what I have to get done. If I can get these things done today then today is great.” But each day there’s always something in there for me to make that I’m promoting myself. Because I think any business should work on creating new business always.
Tara: What are the things that you least like to do every day?
John: Probably email, I mean honestly. One of the biggest things that I started doing, I used to kind of look at email like all through the day and now I just botch it out, I’ll look at it maybe three times a day, that’s it. And it goes so much quicker because most of that stuff, it’s not really that important.
Liam: Yes. John, I wonder if your new focus on SEO work, where, by and large it’s not emergency driven. It’s putting in time and effort every day, or every week, or every month over time and get those returns, versus saying that project has to go live by the 28th of this month, and if it’s not live, there’s going to be real problems for client’s business. They’ve got a sale, they’ve got a launch, they’ve got something. I wonder if your new business focus lends itself to that kind of systemization of communications with your clients.
John: Yeah, I think it’s actually put a lot less, I should say it’s taken a lot of stress off of me. Because I think when you’re doing design and development, it’s always kind of a race to get stuff done. At least, that’s the way that I was feeling. And I think with SEO, it is more of like a long-term thing. It’s doing stuff each day and executing on your strategic talent to get the site traffic. I think it’s a lot less of daily pressure. I think with design and development, it gets really looked into kind of a deadline mentality where it’s always go faster, faster, faster. I think it’s given me more enjoyment of being in development because it’s not as super critical, it’s more a part of just one component of the plan instead of the entire plan.
Tara: Yeah. I think when you’re doing client work, there’s a balance between treating them with a level of urgency and being responsive and letting them know that you care about them, and valuing your own time and realizing that this is not life or death situation. I think that finding that balance in treating your clients well but not jumping at every single thing is important.
Let’s talk about the WordPress community, if we can switch gears?
Tara: I know that you said that you’re still a part of the WordPress community even though you’ve switched gears a little bit, can you tell us sort of how you found the WordPress community and how you interacted with them, both as a community member and how maybe they’ve also contributed to what you’ve learned?
John: Definitely. Around 2011 is when I first started building on WordPress. I was looking at Drupal and I think ExpressionEngine, but WordPress was the one that seemed to be most easy for me, and developing on WordPress was something that I was drawn to. Building custom themes, that’s something that I was drawn to since day one. The WordPress community, there’s been a couple of different ways that I’ve interacted with that. Sacramento WordPress Meetup definitely was where I first started interacting with it locally. Twitter has been amazing, I’ve been able to meet many awesome people, yourself included. And I have friends all over the place, and just through the internet and stuff like that. In the WordPress community, people are reaching out if you’re commenting on their blog, different things like that. That’s definitely been a long game, too, because I think when anybody comes first in the community, nobody knows who you are. It’s just being there and still showing up and trying to provide value for other people instead. Trying to see what you can squeeze out of the community.
Tara: Yeah, I think it’s a great thing to participate in a community where it doesn’t matter if nobody knows who you are, you’re welcomed no matter what. You meet people who are known and not known, if that’s the term, but it doesn’t really matter, you’re treated just as well. Most people that we’ve spoken to have mentioned in one way or another how, especially at WordCamps, their lives were turned around by the welcome that they received there. I definitely can identify with that.
Starting out in your business, and I know you’re self-employed, are there any tips that you would share with people who run their own business, any things that are super valuable tools or tricks that you find to be really helpful to you as you run your own business?
John: Yeah. When I first started, I thought it would be like just slam dunk to find business, but it wasn’t. Or at least, the business that can sustain your business, and definitely, I would say, challenge yourself if you’re a web developer, or a freelancer, or a small agency, always be challenging yourself to raise your rates and know what it takes to be profitable. One thing that I started doing recently is, I don’t know if you’ve read the book Profit First but I opened up another bank account on top of my business account and basically, I take 5% of whatever comes in the door and just throw it in there right off the top. It’s really important to not base your rate off what you would have earned as an employee as an hourly rate, but as a business, it takes a lot more because there’s taxes, you’re not going to have work coming in the door every single day. And you have to pay yourself on top of the profit of the business. What it takes to be sustainable is a lot more than what you think it is.
Tara: That’s really valuable advice for a business owner, I think, if you take your money and spend it when it comes in, you’re not going to last very long. Having a budget and a plan is something that a lot of entrepreneurs don’t start out doing. Along those lines of giving advice, and I really appreciate that, I think it’s important to share that, what advice have you received, what single piece of advice might you say you’ve received that has been the most valuable to you as you’ve moved through your career or your personal life, too, I guess?
John: Two things I would say is just don’t quit. A lot of people quit before they achieve their goal and I think everything is achievable if you have persistence and you have just the vision of not quitting until you attain what you’re after. And the other thing I would say is get out from behind your computer, don’t expect to get all your business online because people have to know you, like you, and trust you before they do business with you. And that’s going to take face-to-face interactions, so get out in your local community, go and be in a room where you’re not in a room full of developers and designers, go and be in a room where you’re the only designer and developer, and you’re going to get that business a lot quicker.
Liam: That’s a great point John. We hear so much about it in tech community, “Oh, we can work wherever we want, we can do our job wherever we are.” And you’re absolutely right from a technical standpoint, but if we’re not in front of somebody, if we’re not sharing a coffee or grabbing a beer or having a conversation with people, there’s not going to be that trust, there’s not going to be that, “He’s a good person, I would want to work with him. She’s really intelligent, I want to work with her.” It’s just an email address. That’s a super fantastic point, especially for a community that perhaps prefers to communicate online rather than in person, thanks for sharing that.
Tara: Yeah, and also that communicates only like with like, I think your point also about getting out and meeting people, being the only developer or a designer in the room is something that’s outside of the comfort zone of many of us, we like to hang out with people who we have a lot in common with, and sometimes it helps to get out and learn from other people, and broaden your horizons a bit, that is great advice. Thank you.
John: You’re welcome.
Liam: John, you have talked about transitioning away from the development and build side of things, it’s still part of your business, particularly as it relates to SEO. How have you managed to deal with clients who maybe you are having an ongoing relationship with in a sense of technical support or their businesses evolving so they want a new section of their website, they want a new template, they want a new expanded aspect of it? Are you still engaging with that, are you quietly telling them to go away, how does that work for you, how do you manage the relationship of that?
John: That’s an excellent question. I do have ongoing people that I have retainers with, I still do development for them. Essentially, I’ll let them know, “This is something else that I’m doing, do you know anyone that could benefit from that?” But I still provide service to them, I haven’t told them to go away. I do have clients that I’ve priced out where it’s as my rate has changed, they’re just, I can’t keep doing that. So I’ll recommend somebody else that’s more within their budget, and that’s fine. But as far as legacy clients, they’re great, I still have them, I still service them.
Tara: Thanks for sharing that, I really appreciate all that you’ve said today about sharing your experience, I loved talking about SEO, hearing about how you balance everything and are working through your transition with your clients. Thanks for all of the tidbits that you’ve shared with us and business advice, too. Where can people find you, John, if they’re looking for you online or elsewhere?
John: Definitely. You can find me at my website which is Lockedowndesign.com. If you want to follow me on Twitter, it’s @lockedown_, my Facebook page, my LinkedIn, it’s all Lockedown Design.
Tara: Great. Thank you so much.
Liam: John, thanks for joining us today, it was an absolute pleasure chatting with you.
John: Thank you guys for having me. I really appreciate what you’re doing with Hallway Chats, I think it’s a great thing.
Tara: Thanks for being here with us.
John: Thank you.
Tara: Bye, bye.
Liam: Bye, bye.
Tara: If you like what we’re doing here – meeting new people in our WordPress community – we invite you to tell others about it. We’re on iTunes and at hallwaychats.com.
Liam: Better yet, ask your WordPress friends and colleagues to join us on the show. Encourage them to complete the “Be on the show” form on our site, to tell us about themselves.