Stephan is an internationally recognized SEO expert and bestselling author. He is the author of Google Power Search, co-author of Social eCommerce, and co-author of the The Art of SEO, now in its 3rd edition and considered THE bible on SEO. Stephan founded Netconcepts in 1995 and grew it into a multi-national SEO agency before selling it in 2010 to Covario. Stephan continued as a sought-after SEO and digital strategy consultant. His clients post-acquisition have included Zappos, Sony Store, Quiksilver, Best Buy Canada, Bed Bath & Beyond, and Chanel. Stephan speaks at many Internet marketing events, including SES, SMX, PubCon, Internet Retailer, Shop.org, etc. He’s contributed to Huffington Post, Search Engine Land, DM News and MarketingProfs, among others. Stephan is the creator of Traffic Control, a 3-day seminar on SEO, co-creator of the 3-day professional development seminar Passions into Profits with Kris Jones, and the host of 2 podcasts, The Optimized Geek and Marketing Speak.
Stephan has been through his own incredible transformation — you wouldn’t even recognize him five years ago!
Zephan: Today I’m joined by Stephan Spencer. Stephan is a 3 time O’Reilly published author of Google Power Search, Social ecommerce, and the art of SEO. He’s done numerous projects over the years, has learned so many lessons, so I’m kind of gonna give him the ability to state his own background here, because there are just so many amazing things that he’s done. Followed Tony Robins around, moved to New Zealand, just because he wanted to live somewhere new, so so many transformations and things have happened in a very short period of time for him. So first of all, thank you so much for being here today, and I’d love for you to just kinda share with everybody, I know it’s tough, since your story is like 3 whole books in one, but what’s kinda like the nutshell story of, you know, where you are right now, and some of the things that have got you here?
Stephan: Thanks, uh, I appreciate being here. So, basically, I was studying for a PHD in biochemistry, and the whole internet thing was really heating up, this was 1994, and I met one of the guys from Netscape before I even heard of Netscape, when everyone was still using the mosaic browser, I met Rob McCool, and he’s the inventor of Apache. And at the time, Netscape server, and prior to that, TSA web server. So, I got starry-eyed, I decided I would quit my PhD and I started an agency and I took a part-time job quickly, it just kinda added a little safety net there, and then I was able to move from that, within a couple of months, and have my agency just take off. Four years into it, I moved to New Zealand, just because I wanted to, with my family, and came back eight years later, sold my agency two years after that, and followed Tony Robbins around for a few years as a platinum partner, which was amazing and definitely life-changing.
Tony changed my life for sure, just in the first event that I attended, just doing that fire-walk on the 2,000 degree hot coals and realizing I could completely reboot my life, and doing that, a year later, I was literally unrecognizable from the guy I was previously. People would not recognize me at conferences, because I was on the speaking circuit, and so if they didn’t know who I was, it was kind of fun. So, it’s a long story, sorta background, a lot of lessons learned for sure.
Zephan: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s crazy, you just showed me the photos of you, kind of like the before and after, and it’s just amazing to just see—it’s on optimizedgeek.com on your about page—and there’s a photo from ’07, and a photo from 2015, and what a difference! You can clearly see, as you say, both inside and out. You know, we haven’t ever had anyone bring up Tony Robbins on the podcast! So I would love to hear, maybe just like your experiences in, and following him—I would love to hear how the hot coals go, and you know, what sort of changes happened for you at those events, and how that’s kind of played out.
Stephan: Right, so it’s been amazing for me to expand my horizons, to think differently, to change my mindset, obliterate limiting beliefs, it’s just been so transformational for me. Even though the first day of the first, this entry level event, which is called Unleash the Power Within, at the end of the first night, where you do, where you fire walk on these 2,000 degree hot coals, I did not think that I would do it, but I tell you what, everybody ends up doing it by the end of that night, including little kids, and 80-year-old elderly folks, they all do it, and you don’t get burned. It’s just, it just blew my mind. It was like, if I could do that, I could do anything, and so I went through all these changes over the next 6, 8, 10 months, and, became the person that you see, the picture on optimizedgeek.com, which, by the way, is my podcast show called The Optimized Geek.
And then I’m working on a self-help book about personal transformation, which will be, which will have the same title. So, I was so inspired by Tony to, to make all these changes to my life that I thought, well, I better share this with the world, and see who else can, can change too, because Tony doesn’t appeal to everybody. I didn’t know anything about him, some people just said “Oh, well he’s just that infomercial guy, or he’s just a guy with big teeth and big hands, just kind of a celebrity motivational speaker, and shallow, had all that movie and that” but they don’t really know the content of what he teaches until they do a deep dive, even if you just listen to one of his CDs, you don’t really get the full immersion until you go to one of his live events.
Zephan: That’s amazing.
Stephan: I’ll tell you, it is life changing. And then to take it the next level, and start following him around the world, on these amazing trips where we went to like, India, and like India, we went to Varanasi, where they burn bodies found on the shore of the Ganges river, and we went to, Udayapur, and he brought in these wondrous monks, and we received these wondrous blessings called Dichas, and it’s just, stuff that I would never have been exposed to otherwise, he’s an intelligent browser, bringing in all this amazing stuff that he’s been able to find, all areas of, of life, expertise, of business, and spirituality, and everything is so, been very grateful to have had that experience. I did a platinum partnership, a thing for three years, and I met incredible people, have a new peer group of people who not only are very successful, but really want to make a difference in the world, like they’re very contribution focused, growth-focused, and I’ll tell you, the peer group is everything. You are the average of the five people you hang out with the most, and you change your peer group, you change your life.
Zephan: Yeah, I completely agree, I mean, this is something that I’ve seen over and over again, and it’s really all about who you’re spending the most time with. Now, you know, looking at this picture from 2007, I’m wondering, just for people tuning in since, you know, if they can’t run to the computer right now, could you maybe just describe for us? I’d love to kind of pull people through this transformation process, maybe have them pull out some trinkets of knowledge of maybe what they might be able to deploy as well. Who was this person that, that we saw in 2007, you know, what sort of fears, or what sort of objections to, you know, building the life that you have built, did that person have?
Stephan: Right. Well, from the outside looking in, you’d think, wow, this guy has it made. He’s in a part of the world that most people only dream about living, which is New Zealand, up to middle of 2007, and I had wonderful family, I was married, I had 3 daughters and a stepdaughter, and I could take time off, if I wanted to, I was not, just kind of , shackled to my business. I was in control of my business, but yet I, at one point, a few years earlier, I was able to take a full 6-month Sabbatical. So on the outside, you’d say “Wow, this guy’s got it made! He’s got the total digital lifestyle, where he can live anywhere, he can come and go and do what he pleases, he can take time off, many retirements, or whatever.” Sounds great, right? But internally, I was not fulfilled. I was not living up to my full potential, and I was in an unhappy marriage. So when my wife at the time wanted to file for divorce, in 2008, she told me that the marriage is over, I felt devastated, and I felt lost, and depressed, so for, and I didn’t have a road map, or any kind of, I don’t know, structure to fall back on, to say “Okay, here’s what I need to do to fix my life, and take it to the next level, not just be a status quo.”
So that’s what I got from Tony Robbins, and through some other masterminds. I was in, like, I was in mastermind with Neil Strauss, taught all sorts of stuff about how be your best self, how to project a more confident, better you, and so forth, so I was in that for a few years, or actually I’m still in it, it’s amazing, Neil Strauss is a best-selling author of the Game, of the Truth, of Emergency, all these great books, and, yeah, so this whole new world opened up to me, but before, the before version of me, I was holding myself back, and it was all very subconscious, and I was unconscious. Just kind of sleepwalking in many respects, just showing up to do my thing, and then not really dreaming of what’s possible and my ultimate fulfillment.
What’s my true gift, not just like what am I good at, but why am I here on this Earth, and that was something that kind of unlocked through this process of all these self-development seminars. I’ve probably spend a half-million dollars on self development, between Masterminds and seminars, and home-study courses and everything. I’m an avid learner, I just soak this stuff up like a sponge, so I, yeah, it’s just the external changes, I mean, you’d literally say “Wow, this guy is like the living embodiment of the Benjamin Button movie.” I look 20 years older in a picture that’s 10 years, or eight years ago. Like, how does that work, right?
Zephan: It’s unbelievable. I mean, I’m looking at it right now, and it’s just, it’s just a completely different person. And I think, I think even just the non-verbal expression from the, it’s very visible. I have to ask, you know, so you mentioned that you’d probably invested somewhere in the range of half a million dollars in personal and business development, and improvement in yourself?
Zephan: So, you know, just to get a little perspective on how, you know, the type of return you get on something like that, I am 26, I’ll be 27 this year, but in just the six years I’ve been out of college, I’ve invested somewhere around $25,000-$30,000 in myself, and my own personal development, which, I mean, I couldn’t find you any one of my friends, my age group who’s done that, so just for perspective to our listeners, I’d love to hear just a little bit from you on, you know, the return on the investment of something like that.
You know, I mean, we’ve obviously heard that you’ve learned so man things, you know, whether it be choosing the people that you surround yourself with, but I’m sure that some people are listening right now, and going “Half a million dollars? I don’t even have a business that would allow me to sustain something like that, 10-15-20 years from now!” You know, maybe we can, like, transition here into, how you can go about building a business that allows you to do things like this, because I know, for me, such a huge, important aspect to my lifestyle was creating a business that allows me to invest in myself and I continue to learn and grow in ways that I might have not been able to do.
Stephan: Right. So, let me first kind of give you, let me set the record straight here that the ROI, the return on investment of self-development is, it’s unimaginable. Yeah, you can equate real dollars to these different seminars, and masterminds, and home-study courses, and the books that you get and so forth, and it’s a process. It takes time. There are steps here that you don’t invest all of it at once, and you, you know, work through these various milestones, but just the, the, as far as cash, the cash ROI of being a platinum partner for me was probably 2:1.
A new business, in client contracts, I’m an SEO consultant, search engine optimization consultant, I know a ton about Google, and how it works, and how to reverse-engineer the algorithms and all that and get your website to the top of the search results. Well I got an incredible amount of exposure to, to other platinum partners, and not only as a fellow plat, now we were called plats, but also I got to get on stage and, 2 years in a row, I was, yeah 2 different years that I was involved as a platinum partner, I got to speak at business mastery, which is Tony’s event that costs $10,000 per ticket. So I had access to lots of really great businesspeople, who were very growth and contribution focused, it was, ii was a great opportunity that I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t joined plat. And on top of that, I got all this amazing personal growth and I got to meet my soul mate at one of the events, I met her at Date with Destiny
Zephan: Very nice!
Stephan: So, I mean, the gifts are immeasurable. I have, I have this spiritual awakening, and in India, on the plat trip, to, I guess that one of these monks came and stuff, I just had this awakening and I, that was transformational as well, so I’ve had amazing, intangible gifts, but the ROI cashwise, certainly 2:1.
Zephan: Yeah, absolutely, I mean, I’m not surprised by that at all. You know, just wanted to put it into perspective for some people out there that couldn’t even imagine investing that much in themselves in the next decade, let alone lifetime.
Stephan: Well, let’s break it down and see how somebody could start with a minimal investment. So, like $50 or something. So you could start with getting a book, or a CD, or a DVD. Right? So, some people, that’s their first interaction with Tony Robbins, or if Tony’s not really your thing, there are plenty of other self-development folks that you could learn a ton from. Brian Tracy, Wayne Dire, who unfortunately passed last year, who else, Luis Haye, Mary-Ann Williamson, there are all these great experts out there who you could just get a book, and really apply it, not just like, oh that was interesting reading for bedtime, but start applying it in your life. And for $20, you start making changes, right? You could go to Tony’s entry-level event, Unleash the Power Within, which is like $800. I think that’s $800, and you get to bring your friend or something.
So, very affordable, and it’s a great starting point for your journey. For me, that was the tipping point, or the—that was the decision point where I was able to say, all right, I’m going to change my life, and I felt like I had the power, the drive, and the passion and everything to do that. Just from doing the fire walk. If all I did was day 1 of that 4-day event, it would have been, it would’ve been enough. And then you can go to other events, and again, it doesn’t have to be Tony Robbins, there’s T. Harv Eker, author of the—what is the book—The Millionaire Mind, I think is the name of the book?
Zephan: Yep, The Millionaire Mind.
Stephan: Yeah, he has events through Peak Potentials, that you can even get to for free. When you buy the book, you get 2 free tickets to his entry-level event. There’s also landmark education, and a landmark forum, so there are lots of options. But then, if you want to take it to the next level, like for me, I wanted to, I went to the entry-level event, paid my $700-$800, and then I wanted to go to the next event, which was business mastery, which was $10,000. At the time, I didn’t have the money. Yeah, I was making a decent salary and all that, but it was not commensurate with my level of experience, and stature in the industry, and so forth because it was my own company, I was paying myself less than market rates, and then, through the divorce, I became a minority shareholder of my own company. And I was 1 of 5 board members. So that’s like, I didn’t have the ability to say “All right, I’m going to pull $10,000 out of the company coffers to pay for me going to Business Mastery.” So I had to come up with that out of my own savings, and I was like “Nope. I don’t have the ability to do that right now.” So I—one thing I learned from Tony, in that first seminar was ask a better question, get a better answer. So I asked myself a better question “How can I get to this Business Mastery event for free?”
Stephan: That’s a better question, you’ll get a better answer if you ask yourself better questions. And guess what? I had an answer to that question a day later.
Zephan: No way! So, this is very interesting to me, only because, you know, for me in 2014, one of my biggest aspirations was to travel and I said “How could I do this for free?” And in 2015 I travel hacked 25 free flights around the country, so it’s, I’m always very interested when I hear something like this. So I’d love for you to expand further on that. So how do you go from, you know, thousands of dollars for this event, but being able to, to create this scenario where you can go without paying?
Stephan: Yeah! It’s not that hard! It’s just, as I said, when you have a better question, you’re gonna think outside of the box. So, what I came up with, was there was an industry colleague who had kept asking me to come and do training to his team on SEO. And I kept saying no, because I don’t do client at the time, when I ran my agency I didn’t do client work myself, that was all done by my staff, and I was out there, speaking at conferences, writing books, writing articles and so forth for thought leadership stuff. So, I kept saying no to that, but I then I thought “Okay, wait a second. ” And also, financially, it made, there was no incentive for me to do that. Just go into the company coffers, whatever I got paid for that, didn’t get paid to me, it got paid to the company, and it got distributed. And I was a minority shareholder, blah blah blah. No incentive for me to take that job, and do that work myself. I call him up, and say “I got a deal for you. You’ve been asking me to do this training for ages, so I’m willing to do it- pay for my travel expenses, and buy me a ticket to Business Mastery. It’s $10,000, I’ll come in and I’ll do day training to your team.” And he said “Done!”
Stephan: And, and this can work at any level, like you can just, when you’re starting out and when I started my business, in 1995, I didn’t have any money. All I had was student loan debt. I mean, I was completely broke. And there was a $2,000 conference, and I was 2 months into running my business, I didn’t have really any clients yet, and I really wanted to get into this conference, which was called “How to Market on the Internet.” $2,000, no way could I afford that, but I got in as a volunteer for free. So I ended up being a mike runner, this is kind of a funny story here, a little embarrassing, I guess, but it just shows the kind of drive and desire I had. As the mike runner, you got the mike in your hand, and I was hearing these panelists and speakers say just the stupidest things about how to market on the internet, and I was like “Oh my god. This is terrible advice!” And so when these people are asking questions, and I had the mike, I would chime in!
Zephan: And kind of play MC, a little bit?
Stephan: I was 23 at the time, so I didn’t realize what bad taste this was, but I’ll tell you what—I get a ton of business cards by the end of the day, people coming up and saying “Oh my god, you were so much smarter than those guys up on stage!” I basically upstaged from down as a mike runner volunteer people like Jim O’Donnell, founder of Modem Media. I’m sure he was really angry at me, because I was asked to not show for day two by the conference organizer at the end of the day, which was surprising for me. I did not expect that. But I had my first two big accounts from doing that. And they were both worth a half-million dollars over the course of time. So that was my angel investors, essentially. I didn’t have to go out and give away a piece of my company, I just had to be really cheeky and run around with the mike and chime in, and upstage these guys a little bit. You can do it with literally no money, you just gotta have the drive. Your best resource is resourcefulness, that’s what Tony Robbins says, and I believe it completely.
Zephan: So I have to ask, you know, you’re talking about how it’s so important to ask better questions. And one of the big things that led you to being able to go to this event was you kind of had to look at the places in your life where you were saying no, right? You were looking at, you know, going in and speaking to this company, and you had been saying no for a long time. Would you say that a good question to ask, or a good thing to explore, is what are the places in my life where I’m saying no? You know, perhaps that place of resistance is actually one of the place I need to go right now?
Stephan: Possibly. I would actually open it up to asking the other half of your brain to chime in on these things that you may not see where the opportunity lies, or you may not see the path forward, and use the right hemisphere, which we’re not really tapping into, not nearly as much as we could be. So, I actually interviewed Bill Donias in a recent episode of my podcast, The Optimized Geek, and we walked through a process that he uses. You write with the left hand, or your non-dominant hand, but before this you get into this meditative state and you ask your right brain to chime in, and help you solve the problem, or help you prioritize your to-do list for the day, or help you come up with the big idea that you’re trying to come up with for your new product, or your new service or whatever. And it works!
It’s amazing. So just thinking outside of the box, in whatever way that best suits you, if it’s like, well, let’s just do an improve approach and just not say no to things, so you just say yes and, and see where things lead, or use your right brain and connect to that and you start journaling with your left hand, and you start brainstorming with it, or whatever the process is. Just think differently, start coming up with new approaches, because all growth happens outside of your comfort zone. If you’re doing the same thing, day in and day out, how are you going to grow? How are you going to see new opportunities right in front of you?
Zephan: Yeah, completely. So just to reiterate on this one, because I think we might have hit on a little bit of a golden nugget here and I don’t want people to miss this, you’re saying a great way to start using the other part of your brain is by writing with your non-dominant hand? Is that correct?
Stephan: Correct. But not just, you’re not trying to be, you’re not trying to learn how to use your left hand, or your non-dominant hand, to write in a very legible way, it’s to connect with your right brain with that intention of having your right brain chime in with, its ideas, right? Because our verbal centers are over on the left hemisphere, so when we’re speaking and so forth, we’re using our left hemisphere, and left-brain people, like myself, who are very analytical and logical and all of that don’t tend to use that more creative side as much, and so you have to have some sort of process. What better process to use than somebody who’s an expert on the brain, who uses this with huge companies like Kawasaki and Walt Disney and so forth, and he just outlines the whole process in one of my episodes from a few weeks ago. Definitely a great listen.
Zephan: Yeah, and I think that’s definitely—you know, for everyone tuning in right now, that’s a bit of gold on this episode, because that’s something I haven’t heard before. I mean, I understand that we have the two sides to our brain, and each part is controlling different things, but this is something that no one’s recommended before. So thank you for sharing that. I’d love to just kind of wrap up things here, I know that we could go on about all sorts of personal development things for quite some time, but if there’s—2 things here. You brought up a good point of if you have $50, not even $50, $20 or $30, one of the best things to get started is by investing in yourself with just getting a book. So I wanted to hear, I mean I know you and I have probably both read tons and tons of books, but is there any one or two if, let’s say I drive to the bookstore today, and I have $30 to spend, are there any, one or two books, that you would say I should absolutely get right now that will have the biggest impact on me, kind of like the 80%-20% rule, the 20% of books that will do the 80% of changing and transforming myself, and then maybe any sort of final words of wisdom, as far as, you know, one of the biggest transformational things that have worked for your life?
Stephan: So, I think that the book Think and Grow Rich is the one book that everybody listening must read. That’s by Napoleon Hill, it was written almost a century ago, many years ago, and it’s just as applicable today as it was back then. Napoleon Hill studied all these huge giants of industry back in the day, like Rockefeller and so forth, and wrote this set of strategies that each one of these folks all have in common, whether it’s Ford or Rockefeller or Carnegie or whoever. And apply those habits in your life, and things like being part of Masterminds is one of the thirteen principles, and that will change your life for sure. As far as like, other parting wisdom, just think outside the box, as far as like what is your, what’s your vision for what could be possible?
Like for me, living in New Zealand was just kind of a pie in the sky idea, I’d never even been there, and I just decided, you know what? Supposedly the internet thing allows you to do this from anywhere, so let’s just go through the motions and see where it leads. So I applied for residency, I got in. And then I went and made a trip to just find a place to live, and rent out a house that was already furnished, and you know, pick a neighborhood that had nice schools and everything, and then next month we moved our whole lives off to New Zealand.
And I thought, you know what, no risk, no reward. If I, basically if the business falls apart because of this move halfway across the world, I’m maintaining a US based business, I had clients like bird’s eye, and yeah. They could leave because the founder is moving halfway across the world. I was going to take a chance, because no risk, no reward. So be willing to live outside your comfort zone, take chances, but calculated risks. Don’t be crazy, or stupid. And just try to live outside your comfort zone, because that’s where all the growth happens.
Zephan: Very cool! So Stephan, this has been a great episode. I always say that good things happen when Stephans and Zephans get together, and this is definitely one of those times. It’s been great to hear your story, and I know there’s a lot more to it, and I’m sure that people at this point want to check out and explore, you’ve got a great podcast episode that you reference there, so I’d love to let everyone know, where’s the best place for them to find that episode, find out more information about you, and to tune in to what you’re doing?
Stephan: Yeah! So that episode’s on optimizedgeek.com, which is one of my two podcast shows, my other one is Marketing Speak, and that one’s at marketingspeak.com, subscribe via iTunes, of course, and on stuffandspencer.com, which is my main site, there are tons of articles, there’s some .PDF checklists and things, there’s stuff on online marketing, and SEO, and on self-development. I write a column for the Huffington Post that you can find on there, and just lots of great material. Archived webinars, and videos and so forth, so definitely stuffandspencer.com, so definitely go there.
Zephan: Perfect! Well, thanks so much for taking some time out of your schedule today to be here, and we definitely appreciate you being here on the Year of Purpose podcast, and hope you enjoy the rest of your week!