AMA: Simon Schnieders, founder of Blue Array

Without a solid SEO strategy, new customers are unlikely to find your website quickly or easily. And, more likely,  click on a competitor. No one wants that.

Simon Schnieders is the founder of Blue Array, an award-winning specialist agency with a sole focus on effective SEO.

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Hi Simon! Tell us a bit about your company. 

Blue Array is one of the UK’s largest specialist SEO companies. The business was established six years ago and was built from the ground up - there’s been no investors and has been a bootstrapped effort.

In those six short years, the business has gone from me as a sole entrepreneur to over fifty employees. We work with the likes of RAC, Valentino, Boden and Go Cardless. When it comes to our clients, we are industry and country agnostic.

How did the idea for Blue Array come about? 

It was when I was working in-house at Zoopla. My idea of starting Blue Array was born out of my own experience from using an agency, where the output wasn’t great.

It was at a time when many marketing and SEO agencies pivoted into being generalists (as noted in a popular book at the time called the Marketing Agency Blueprint). Our value proposition has always been the same: focus on SEO alone and nothing else.

When working in-house, I could see that some roles were executed really well vs using an agency, but SEO was always a tough one, as you need to be able to get expert talent in and then retain them.

Speaking of talent, are you and your team still working remotely? Do you plan to keep that going? 

We are, and we plan on being very flexible going forward. We genuinely put our people first and will do what’s best for them. Back in 2020, we chose to forgo profit in order to retain our employees during the early stages of the pandemic. 

While we’re more than happy for our employees to do what works for them, we will always have office space available, in case they’d prefer working in that environment.

We’re also acutely aware that junior members of our team may benefit from being exposed to working in an office as a team, just so they can experience those ‘tribal settings’ of learning from their elders on how to react in certain situations while remaining professional at all times.

That's a good point. A hybrid approach sounds just right. How do you keep your team aligned? 

Communication is paramount. Just like any good marriage, you go through the honeymoon period and then settle onto ‘serious business’ when starting a new role.

As we’re all aware, marriages can often end in divorce, and we never want our employees to divorce us, so we ensure that everyone is aligned to our business goals.

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So what's the key to a happy marriage?

Clear objectives, utilising OKRs and ensuring that performance bonuses are aligned with our goals - showing there’s a clear financial output to being aligned with the business.

Further to this, we recognise where we’ve got gaps in the business and spend a considerable sum on training. We’ve recently invested in management training, as many of our employees are venturing into line management for the first time.

Training, communication and clear pathways to progression are key to keeping people aligned and ensuring they’re happy within their roles - constantly progressing and evolving.

What does company culture mean to you?

I think it’s one of those things that’s born out of the company itself. When we first started to create a culture at Blue Array we asked all our employees, “what do we represent to you?”

We had a glass meeting room, and there were sticky notes everywhere, and that’s the day our company culture was created. Company culture = what we represent to our people.

I know it doesn’t work like that in every organisation, as it tends to be top-down i.e. a company tells you the culture and the employees follow suit, but we feel it needs to be a bottom-up approach by letting your employees tell you what you are.

Love that.

By the time you get around to implementing a formalised culture document, trust me, you already have one, and your team will tell you exactly what that is.

Do you have a share or option scheme in place for your team? What impact has it made?

We’ve had an EMI incentive scheme since day one of Blue Array and I believe it’s had a big impact. Our long-standing employees have been a part of this for some time, as we’ve always had an ambition to pivot the business at some future stage.

And, by pivoting, we mean being acquired by another larger agency. With our current growth, it’s not something I can solely sustain financially, so the next stage would be to go international.

Having our people invested in this horizon event has made them feel as if they’re on a journey with us. It’s hugely impactful when you’re working together towards a common goal, as well as experiencing the financial gains from this. 

An Enterprise Management Incentive (EMI) is a tax-efficient share options scheme for employees of UK-based businesses.

Fantastic! What is the biggest mistake you've made as an entrepreneur? 

I don’t think I’ve made any mistakes... When I say that, it’s not an egotistical thing, it’s just that I don’t view ‘mistakes’ in the same way that others do. I think I’ve made many learnings along the way, but I’ve relished these opportunities.

If you’ve followed Blue Array for some time, you’ll know that we have a steadfast phrase “fail fast, fail often”. Mistakes or failures are a part of every entrepreneur’s journey, it’s how you learn from them and then move on.

I truly believe you can’t be a successful entrepreneur unless you make mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re simply not being creative enough and that lack of creativity often leads to business failure.

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Couldn't agree more. Did you ever experience a business disappointment that led to something better?

Hmm… there is one example that comes to mind, but I’m not sure it’s a disappointment as it turned into a real opportunity. We had a client who said that they’d like to support our work by hiring an internal SEO manager for their organisation.

They asked us to help with the interviewing and to consider it as a “discount on your day rate”. Customers don’t always necessarily understand that as an agency we sell our time.

However, this predicament turned into a real opportunity, as it gave me the idea to launch SEO Recruitment by Blue Array to all our customers.

It seemed like a no brainer as we have the expertise and years of experience to help recruit the best talent within SEO. This service is doing incredibly well.

That worked out well. In a parallel universe, if you hadn’t started this company, what would you be doing?

I think I would be in an art studio, bemoaning why I couldn’t sell anything! I’m a creative person, but the creative side of me isn’t commercially-aligned. I like to paint and draw what I like, rather than create to suit the demands of the market. 

And if you could only eat one meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be and why? 

Well, I know it’d be a vegetarian meal. Although I must say it’d be torture to eat one meal for the rest of my life. If I had to choose, I’d probably say an Honest Burgers’ plant-based burger - as that’s a weekly tradition for me and any of the team who want to join me. 

Good choice! Thanks so much for your time Simon, it's been a pleasure.