There’s no guarantee taking a big risk in SEO will pay off. Blush Digital CEO Jim Christian’s leap of faith from aerospace engineering into the ever-changing sea of SEO is one exceptional story, whose career change led him to found Blush Digital and the burgeoning Advanced Search Summit for SEOs. Ben interviewed Christian to learn more about his exciting career transition from the complex field of aerospace engineering to SEO, his Fast Times at Ridgemont High-like experience working for GoDaddy and how he combined the power of shared experiences with a repertoire of leading SEO experts to launch the Advanced Search Summit.
- “There’s not really a school, or entity that can teach SEO. It’s something learned throughout time with your experiences.”
- On the difficulties of running a personal agency: “I think the challenge is … I think the issue is not the SEO component of it, but the actual running a business. Where are my taxes? How do I do all of these forms? How do I repetitiously come up with programs that will work for all of my customers? … I was making a decent living but was very, very frustrated with the business side of running an agency.”
- How Christian views risk: “For me, risk is seen as a challenge and a challenge that can be overcome given the right amount of time, effort, and stamina to really make it work. And with GoDaddy going public and everything, I had the ability to kind of sit down and say like, ‘Where do I want to go next? Like what’s the next chapter in my journey?’”
- His advice to young SEOs: “I think the best advice that I can give someone is never feel like you’re alone. Never feel like there’s no one that’s out there to help you. And never feel that you’re stuck on something that you’ll never get over … Like I said, our event tends to focus on people who have been in the industry for five to seven years plus, other shows like Pubcon or SMX or they tend to focus on people that have been around or just joining the community and they serve a valuable asset to people’s growth.”
Ben: Welcome to career day on the Voices of Search podcast. Today we’re going to talk about the skills accumulated and lessons learned from a great SEO throughout the various stops on his career. Joining us for career day is an experienced SEO and one of the founders of an internationally recognized search event whose career actually started in aerospace engineering. Jim Christian is the CEO of Blush Digital, which is a digital marketing agency that combines technology along with industry leading talent to connect brands to customers together online.
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Ben: But before we hear from Jim, I want to remind you that this podcast is brought to you by the marketing team at Searchmetrics. We are an SEO and content marketing platform that helps enterprise scale businesses monitor their online presence and make data driven decisions. To support you, our loyal podcast listeners, we’re offering a complimentary digital diagnostic. Where a member of our digital strategies group, will provide you with a consultation that reviews how your website content and SEO strategies can all be optimized. To schedule your free digital diagnostic, go to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic.
Ben: Okay, on with the show. Here is my interview with Jim Christian, the CEO at Blush Digital. Jim, welcome to the Voices of Search podcast.
Jim: Thanks, I really appreciate being here. This is great, fantastic.
Ben: An honor and a pleasure to have you here. You’ve had a successful career in SEO, the founder of Blush Digital. You run the Advanced Search Summit as well. The next show is going to be in Napa. This is all just a boondoggle for you to go and drink some nice wine, right?
Jim: I mean, look, life has its challenges and you might as well make it exciting. So you know we’re happy about this being a repeat show for us. We just actually finished up our D.C. Show on the East coast, which was a great successful conference. And we’re really looking forward to Napa in April and so we shall return to the Valley and there will be corks popped and glasses poured. So looking forward to it.
Ben: I think if you’re running a recruiting pitch on how to run an event, putting it in a place like Napa, California in April is not a bad one.
Ben: But let’s talk a little bit about you and your career. Talk to me about how you got started off in SEO?
Jim: Well, it’s crazy. Realistically it was kind of like a a fateful event. I started actually working for a small ISP, internet service provider, in Orange County in California and it was kind of just like kind of brought in under my wings. Really wasn’t focused on SEO at the time, was mainly focused on providing websites for the ISP customers and that was a great couple of years that we had over there that kind of led into growing out of that position. And I was kind of focused on the whole marketing side as I was making these websites. Like how can I make them look better and how can I get them to show up in Google. But clearly with no idea of what I was doing at the time. So it was pretty funny.
Jim: But I left that position and went into this aerospace and defense company over in Orange County as well. Was really surprised at just how crazy the aerospace and defense industry was. But they originally hired me to do this kind of back work of trying to figure out like who works over at Lockheed Martin or who works over at Boeing? Where is General Dynamics’ company in Arizona, where is that located? And so there was a lot of this work and I got really sick and tired of trying to find all these people because they’re basically just invisible.
Ben: It sounds like you had some early experience in marketing and really you mentioned that you went to aerospace engineering, but it was more of a sales and a sales development role than anything else.
Jim: Right. And so this started an interesting path, because what I realized was is that I could market and find all of these people through marketing online. And so I started getting the site ranked better, I started putting out more content and that kind of led into the whole like, “Hey, this thing is something like, what is it?” And then I was like, “Oh, it’s SEO. This sounds cool. Let’s start doing that.” And you know, growth. It was fun.
Ben: So talk to me about the early experiences you had. You mentioned you worked for an ISP and you got some sort of broad marketing experience and you were kind of dabbling around SEO. You went to aerospace engineering and you started doing more sales development and stumbled into SEO. How do you feel like those experiences laid a foundation for you down the road as an SEO? What did you learn from your pre-SEO experiences that you think is relevant today?
Jim: Well, you know, I think being able to solve problems is definitely one of the things. I think everyone in our industry can pretty much attest to that. I think the other thing is being calm, cool, collective and really trying to see, I don’t want to say see the future, but being able to see patterns, pattern recognition, how things work and then storing that kind of in your head or your internal database to figure out like, “Hey, you know, I tried this one thing on this page and it really, really worked well and you guys started taking notes on that and started figuring out that, you know, this is all kind of interconnected and started learning more and you know, obviously going to some of the websites that are out there, the news sites on, and learning more through that.”
Jim: And I think that a lot of people kind of take that same pathway. There’s not really a school or an entity that can teach SEO. It’s something that’s learned throughout time with your experiences.
Ben: I’m the host of another podcast called the Finding a Job podcast, which gives career skills to people that are early stage careers looking to start their career. And one of the lessons that comes out a lot from that is there is no experience like experience. It doesn’t really matter what it is, but getting some career experience and learning from your failures is relevant no matter what career path you end up in.
Ben: Eventually you move on from your aerospace engineering background and some of the sales development and general marketing skills and you start to specialize in SEO. And your first SEO role was actually the owner of a small SEO company in Scottsdale, Arizona called Smoke Dog. What was the reason why you started an agency and why did you decide to focus on SEO?
Jim: I think for me, I had been working over at this aerospace company for awhile and kind of outgrew it. Was in California and got kind of burnt out on the traffic and the amount of people over there and kind of wanted to start fresh and see what we could do and started Smoke Dog. And that was an interesting challenge. Really had no idea what I was doing. I mean from the standpoint of running my own business and trying to be successful. And it was fun for awhile.
Jim: But the challenges of being a single owner entrepreneur had its periods and I just happened to be looking around and oddly enough saw a position over at GoDaddy and thought, “Well heck, why not?” I know who GoDaddy is. I’ve heard of them through the commercials and through everything else and turns out they were about three or four minutes away from my house. So I decided to step up and maybe see if that was a better challenge for me.
Ben: So before you moved on to GoDaddy, you’re running your own agency. Why do you consider that to be such a challenge? Where were you finding your customers and what type of work were you doing?
Jim: So I think the challenge is for the most part when you’re just starting off as your own agency or an independent, I think the issue is not the SEO component of it, but the actual running a business. Where are my taxes? How do I do all of these forms? How do I repetitiously come up with programs that will work for all of my customers? Or do you do something custom? And then if you are doing something custom, how do you stand upon that so that you can easily gain more clients?
Jim: And for me at the time, I was just doing a bunch of outreach from people that I knew in the past. Actually some of the people from my earlier ISP days, they became customers of Smoke Dog at the time. So it kind of worked out. I was making a decent living but was very, very frustrated with the business side of running an agency, so.
Ben: Being a solopreneur can be a frustrating venture. I’ve done it a few times and it’s gratifying in the sense that everything is on your plate and it’s terrifying in the sense that everything is your responsibility. I understand that we’ve had similar experiences. Where running your own businesses, comes with its own special challenges.
Ben: Eventually you decide to go back in-house and you work for GoDaddy. I think at the time when you started at GoDaddy, it was still the very male centric, like Danica Patrick in a bikini type marketing program, trying to get people to build websites. It’s obviously grown a lot since those days. What was it like when you started at GoDaddy? What was your role? Talk to me a little bit about the environment.
Jim: Man, it was a start up mentality. Hungry mouths, very interesting, eclectic people. You really felt like you belonged as long as you had that type of personality. For me it was great. I mean, I had an amazing, amazing boss who was at GoDaddy and he took me under his wings and was so supportive. And that led to so many doors opening for me.
Jim: Originally, actually, what’s funny is when I started at GoDaddy, I was actually hired to do a PPC program. They wanted me to develop a in-house PPC product for GoDaddy so that they could sell it off to their customers, basically automating PPC. And it was great and I had a fun time building that program. It didn’t really work at the time due to some restrictions with Google and accessing accounts and stuff like that. So, the project was scrapped.
Jim: But the interesting thing was, in the meantime I was just doing SEO for the company, being like, “Hey look, like, you know, we moved up 20 spots for the word hosting.” And that really got the attention of the CEO and even Bob Parsons. And they said, “Well, you know, I don’t think that this PPC thing is going to work out, but you know, we’d love to have you start as our employee number one for doing SEO for the company.” And I was like, “Well this is great. Like this is exactly what I want. Like this is perfect for me.” So I was thrilled at the opportunity.
Ben: So you worked your way into SEO at GoDaddy, a developing company, a startup, not necessarily the the scaled company that we know of it today. Talk to me about some of the challenges that you faced while you were working at that company. What was it like being there in its growth stage?
Jim: It was, like I said, it was exciting. The day-to-day chores and tasks were varied tremendously. Bob was … Oh it was pretty funny. An interesting story is I used to sit right next to the recording studio where the miniature, not the full commercials, but some of the stuff that he would put online were being created. And for me, and I think for probably a lot of people, we tend to have our headphones on, faces to the keyboard, and we’re literally just working away as fast as we can. And then all of a sudden, I feel this hand on my shoulder and it was Bob and he’s just like, “Son, how’s it going today?” Freaked me out every single time. It was the greatest thing. And I’d just be like, “Bob, I’m kicking ass and taking names, brother, trying to kill all these competitors for us.” And he’s like, “Good man, I like that.” Would just walk off.
Ben: Sounds like Bob is a little bit of a cowboy, which explains the early television spots with a … Well, let’s just say that they probably weren’t considered very PC and wouldn’t make it today.
Jim: They were not very PC. But you know what’s interesting is, and I’ll tell a short story about what that meant to Bob and actually the company, but Bob had created a software company and sold it for millions, I’m assuming. And he started GoDaddy and sunk almost every single dollar that he had made from that company. And he was down to his last couple million. And then it was like a make or break thing. And he came out with the commercial with Candice in it and it was very risque, especially for Super Bowl. And it worked.
Jim: The thing with Bob and GoDaddy as a whole is well, all right, let’s see how far this will ride. I mean, if it worked once, maybe it’ll work again. And so they kind of focused on that type of advertising and it and it worked for a decent long time. And obviously times change, people change, and they eventually scrapped that type of marketing. And obviously have grown into the company that they are today, super successful. But it’s funny that they were just teetering on that edge of being successful or a failure and he took risks and they paid off. And I take that with me in everything that I do today as well, so.
Ben: As much as we’re talking about sort of the previously, and I’m going to go on the record as calling them sexist ads that GoDaddy had early on in their career, the company has changed a tremendous amount and evolved. I’m curious to hear what some of the SEO specific challenges that you faced when you were working on optimization. What were you doing at GoDaddy and what were some of the SEO challenges that you saw?
Jim: Well, they were varied. There’s definitely no shortage of them as SEO employee number one. The first thing was the site was a complete disaster. There was stuff on there from years and years and years ago, before I even got there, that were just wasting away on the website. And it was just a complete hari kari mess. And we also found that there was hundreds of millions of back links that were broken from past news stories and in past portions of the site that were torn down with a haphazard wand. And those were very challenging days. And beside all of that, you also have a host of developers working on the website 24 hours a day, putting their hands in the cookie jar and things break, things happen. And it was challenging. We came up with a couple of different programs that really helped solve some of those issues.
Jim: One of them was GoDaddy has a program involved where you can use $50 per person and you can go take them out for like a brown bag lunch or an experience, right? And that really helps with us kind of bonding with the development staff and the marketing staff saying, “Hey look, we kind of have a foot in both sides of this bucket on the technical side, like the developers, we need them to create stuff and deploy it properly so that it’s SEO friendly. And then on the marketing side, we need you guys to create stuff that has SEO in mind.” And so, the whole host of challenges that way arose.
Ben: I think that’s one of the things that we’ve preached in some of the Voices of Search podcasts when we’re talking about SEO best practices and strategies. Embracing the relationships and cultivating the relationships with your cross functional partners is always something that pays off, whether it is your engineering team and having a good line of communication to help them implement some of the technical changes. Your content team, even just general marketing and leadership, it’s always important to invest in the rest of the team around you. Mostly in SEO, it is a medium of marketing that cannot be executed in a vacuum.
Ben: Eventually you move on to launching Blush Digital, your own agency, go back away from an in-house role to running your own shop and you become one of the founders of the Advanced Search Summit. Talk to me about your rationale for leaving a corporate role and what did you do next?
Jim: I think with me, the main thing is is that I don’t see risk traditionally like other people do. For me, risk is seen as a challenge and a challenge that can be overcome given the right amount of time, effort, and stamina to really make it work. And with GoDaddy going public and everything, I had the ability to kind of sit down and say like, “Where do I want to go next? Like what’s the next chapter in my journey?” And I said, “I really had a fun time dealing with my clients when I was running Smoke Dog. And I think that there’s another way to kind of go out at this now with eight years plus of experience behind GoDaddy and running enterprise websites.” I thought, well, instead of focusing on SMBs and small mom and pop or brick mortar shops, I thought, well, maybe what I should do is focus on helping enterprise brands.
Jim: And so, for me, it’s the same work really that I was doing at GoDaddy and again, the challenges of running the business and having that side of it kind of play you is continuously challenging as it is today. But I find solace in knowing that, I have a wealth of people in the community that can help me out if I need it. That I have a support group of other SEOs that I call my friends and I try to hang out with as much as possible. And that kind of led into the catalyst of Advanced Search Summit. It’s an interesting thing, especially when I was at GoDaddy, to feel alone. To feel like there’s no one that can help you. And I think when I was talking about running Advanced Search Summit, I was like, there has to be a way that we can get all of us together in a room where we can all have fun. Make memories, connect, and obviously progress our skills.
Ben: Drink a lot of wine.
Jim: Yeah drink a … shh. The wine. The wine, definitely helps.
Ben: Secret is out, buddy.
Jim: It’s not much of a secret. Well then, we have so much of it. But I think that that was really the catalyst behind Advanced Search Summit and it’s morphed a little bit from a small, 60 plus person conference to we just got done with D.C. and it’s now grown into 230 people and we are looking to grow Napa as well, somewhere around the 200 to 300 mark. So, we’re definitely gaining steam in the community and we look forward to hosting all of these folks. I mean, everyone in D.C. had an amazing time. It was funny, we were up on the rooftop deck of this point of view lounge on the W Hotel and it overlooks the Washington Monument and it also overlooks the White House. And I mean, you could just see everyone’s face like when they came up the elevator and they were able to see basically all of D.C. And it’s that magical moment that we want to capture.
Jim: And we have the same thing over at Napa. Last year we had the Napa wine train with a huge emphasis on wine, obviously. This year we’re going back to Castello di Amarosa, which is a 13th century inspired Tuscan castle that is nestled at the very top of Napa Valley. And it’s an incredible thing, people come up through the buses and all of a sudden they see this drawbridge and then this massive castle. And they have that moment. And for us it’s really being able to capture that and not only just making the connections with people, but making connections with the event as well. And so that’s kind of been our focus.
Ben: So, you leave GoDaddy and you have now some enterprise experience and you parlay that into running an enterprise focused agency and you have a little bit more credibility because GoDaddy becomes a big, well-branded and known company. So, is the Search Summit a vehicle to help you promote your SEO business? What’s the rationale for you running the conference?
Jim: I mean, getting customers from the show is nice. It’s not necessarily something that we go after as far as the agency side of it is concerned. But I think for me, connecting with people and really starting the conversations at the events tend to lead into that thing. I’ll have someone. six months from now call me about, “Hey man, I had a great time at D.C., yeah, I’m running into this problem where I can’t figure out why Google’s treating my website like this. And I’d really love to just get your input on what we should do.” And that kind of leads into some business for the agency, which is great. Other times it’s just being able to answer people’s questions. I think first and foremost, I’m definitely not a sales person. I mean, I have the voice for the radio and the TV, but I don’t focus on that stuff at the events. The events are really kind of aligned with providing that experience and not necessarily selling.
Ben: So as you’ve matured in your career, you’ve had a couple of different takes of running an agency. You were focused on SMBs and what you described as mom and pops to enterprise companies. How do you think about the difference in targeting big companies versus smaller companies at from an agency perspective as an SEO? Are the needs different? Is the sales pitch different? How have you found success running your second agency that you didn’t running your first?
Jim: I think for me, the customers are almost the same with the standpoint of the motive of attack, so like the SEO programs would be roughly the same in some degree. I think with enterprise, obviously you don’t have to go hunting down links and building that portion of it up, but I think the real difference is really the customer themselves. From the standpoint of an enterprise, you’re typically dealing with people that understand SEO, that have gone the route of knowing what they kind of need to do, but they’re just stuck on something. Whereas like a mom and pop or a small business, they’re mainly uneducated to the point of not understanding and they desperately want to understand what you’re doing. And I do, every once in awhile I’ll have a small company that I’m dealing with and those tend to be more of an educational piece.
Jim: Like right now I have a customer that is looking to really grow their site and the number of keywords that they’re ranking for, but they don’t have any sort of a content plan, right? And so for them, understanding how to derive content, how to look for keywords, how to do all of that stuff, those are the things that they’re focused on. Whereas like an an enterprise client will be focused on, I have one right now where I’m doing an audit today and they’re trying to figure out, how come Google isn’t going through our entire website? It’s like, “Well, you didn’t submit your site maps and you have five of them.” And there’s just things like that. And so there’s this difference between them, but they’re pretty much the same for the most part.
Ben: As you look back on your career, having gone from your pre-SEO experience, taken two stabs at running an agency with the middle of the career being focused on SEO. What advice do you have for younger SEOs or people that are interested in starting to develop their SEO and content marketing experience?
Jim: I think the best advice that I can give someone is never feel like you’re alone. Never feel like there’s no one that’s out there to help you. And never feel that you’re stuck on something that you’ll never get over. There is a wealth, and I mean a wealth, of people that are out there that want to do nothing but help you grow. Ways that you can do that? Clearly, I’m kind of biased towards coming to Advanced Search Summit, but any of the conferences are great. They all serve a purpose, depending on where you are in your career path. Like I said, our event tends to focus on people who have been in the industry for five to seven years plus, other shows like Pubcon or SMX or they tend to focus on people that have been around or just joining the community and they serve a valuable asset to people’s growth.
Jim: And my advice would be to seek those events out, seek the people out, and make the connections. I have hundreds and hundreds of people that are on Facebook that I can just pose a question to. In fact, I did this morning, I was like, “Hey, I’m looking for a WordPress plugin that will help me interlink articles that are very similar to each other.” And I know that by the end of the day I’ll have that answer. And it won’t be just by someone who’s guessing. It’ll be by people who know what they’re doing. And so, the advice again would just be to connect and to explore relationships with everyone in the community.
Ben: The SEO community is a powerful one. And by focusing on building and cultivating relationships with your peers, you’re going to be able to lean on them when you get into trouble, when you need help making a career move. And even if you decide that down the road, you’re going to launch a event in Napa to help get everybody some nice Napa cabs. There’s an opportunity for you to work with the people that you know. So build those relationships. I think it’s great advice.
Jim: Yep, great.
Ben: All right Jim, I appreciate having you on the show. Thanks for sharing your story with us. And a one last chance, tell us a little bit about the upcoming Search Summit. What does everybody need to know?
Jim: Yeah, so Napa is coming up April 22nd through the 24th. We’ve got two exciting days of amazing wine drinking and also high caliber speakers from all walks of life, from independents to brands to agencies. We have all of them coming to Napa and there will be fun things like wine tasting. There will be also, I think we’re doing falconry for the first time this year, so that should be pretty interesting.
Jim: Yeah, yeah, it’s pretty interesting. So one thing about our conference we do that’s very unique and interesting is we always have an extra day, right? So if you’re a VIP guest and you have a VIP ticket, we always have kind of like a life balance day. And so traditionally that’s been like, “Hey, let’s go to a winery. Oh, let’s learn more about the wine making process and have some great food, great conversations and just spend the day at an awesome location.” Well, we’re doing that again this year. But what we decided to do was that we wanted to have a little bit of a change.
Jim: And so Bouchaine, their vineyard actually uses falconry to kind of control all of the pests, all of the birds that come in and try to eat the grapes. And so we talked to them about bringing the woman who does the falconry into the property as we’re there for our event, for our VIP day. And she’s like, “Sure. Yeah, that sounds great.” So I think, I’m not sure, but I think everyone’s going to have a chance to fly a hawk off of their arm. So again, tries to bring home all of the connectivity and the memories and being able to have just a fantastic day doing something fun. And again, the content at our summits, we really strive to create the best that we possibly can by getting the best speakers. So we’d love to have anyone who wants to come join us in Napa in April.
Ben: All right, Jim, thanks for being our guest. Look forward to seeing everybody at the Advanced Search Summit Napa.
Ben: And that wraps up this episode of the Voices of Search podcast. Thank you for listening to my conversation with Jim Christian, the CEO of Blush Digital. If you’d like to learn more about Jim, you can find a link to his LinkedIn profile in our show notes. You can send him a tweet at Jim_Christian. J-i-m_C-h-r-i-s-t-i-a-n. Or you could visit his company’s website, which is blushdigital.com. If you’re interested in learning about the Advanced Search Summit, go to advancedsearchsummit.com.
Ben: If you have general marketing questions or if you’d like to talk to me about this podcast, or even if you’re interested in being a guest on our show, you can find a link to my contact information in our show notes, or you can send me a tweet at Ben J. Shap, B-e-n-J-S-h-a-p if you’re interested in learning more about how to use search data to boost your organic traffic online visibility, or to gain competitive insights, head over to searchmetrics.com/diagnostic for your complimentary advisory session with our digital strategies team. And if you like this podcast and you want a regular stream of SEO and content marketing insights in your podcast feed, hit that subscribe button in your podcast app and check back with us next week.
Ben: All right, that’s it for today, but until next time, remember, the answers are always in the data .