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Tuff's SEO Strategist Derek Coleman

Tuff’s SEO Strategist, Derek, on Aligning Personal Interests With Professional Growth

Tuff's SEO Strategist Derek Coleman

Meet Derek Coleman, Tuff’s SEO Strategist. Derek works closely with Tuff’s clients to audit web properties, implement technical SEO fixes, and increase organic revenue.

Below, he shares how Charlie Sheen inspired his career switch from finance to digital marketing, his experience jumping out of a plane his first time flying, and on defining yourself in the larger context of your life (not just work).

Tell us a bit about your 3-5 years before Tuff. What were you working on?

I graduated with a finance degree and I was in finance for a few years. And during that time, in my personal time, I was always putting together WordPress blogs and Shopify sites. As part of that, I was trying to rank them and grow my following on Twitter.

I started off with one blog. It was Charliesheenfacts.com when Charlie Sheen was kind of a viral thing. I just kind of took that Chuck Norris style approach And, I grew the Twitter to like 16,000 followers and I started doing a lot of SEO on the website. And then I was like, you know, I kind of want to switch from finance into digital marketing.

I realized finance was not really what I wanted to do anymore. My passion was more in digital marketing. So, I took a job at a tech company and that’s really where my professional SEO experience started. I was there for three years and it was a lot of content-driven SEO. We published almost 750 pieces of content a month. I was quickly learning how to optimize all of this content for SEO on a piece-by-piece basis as well as the large funnel focus of which ones have the most opportunity.

I got a lot of experience there on the content side and then I moved to LA to work at a different startup as a Director of Growth Strategy. This role started off actually as a technical SEO strategist so I got to learn a lot of the technical SEO side working with things like tags, metatags, descriptions, coding and PHP. It was a standalone website, not on WordPress or anything.This role gave me more of a full stack SEO approach.

After that, I started freelancing for about a year and this gave me experience with so many different clients, so many different industries, so many different types of marketing.

Is there any crossover in how you think about SEO based on what you learned in finance?

Yeah, definitely. I’m more of an analytical person so that helps me with the amount of work I do in spreadsheets. Learning those Excel formulas back in the day was more helpful than taking a course to learn SEO. It was more of a muscle I developed or a mindset of analytical work and working in spreadsheets that has stayed with me.

Why did you decide to join Tuff? What was it that made you say ‘yes’?

I had worked with a number of agencies, both in my full-time roles and while freelancing. And, I didn’t really like the culture of a lot of the agencies. They’re very data-driven but not in the client data-driven sense. Rather, singularly focused on their own revenue targets.

And while getting to know Tuff, I felt there was more of a human approach. In the process of seeing the job description, going through the website, and interviewing, I got the sense of a small but tight-knit team. So, I think that is really what separated Tuff and helped me make the decision. I didn’t want to be just like a number somewhere, churning out work with impersonal relationships with clients.

Is there anything about you that usually surprises people when they’re first meeting you?

The first time I went on an airplane, I skydived. And then after that, I started to travel quite a bit. I didn’t really travel until I was 23 but now it is really important to me.

Tuff's SEO Strategist Derek Coleman
You’re quite passionate about traveling. Has this informed how you show up at work?

When I’m meeting people, I try not to default to ‘what do you do for work?’. If I am striking up a conversation with somebody, it’s probably about something we have in common or something we’re experiencing in the moment, like a basketball game that is on. I think it is important to recognize that we’re more than just our job.

What is it about SEO that gets you fired up?

I really love some of the more technical problem solving. I was just working on this for a client, they have like 16,000 ahref language tags and we needed to make some updates. So I was like, ‘okay, let me write a quick script and it’s just going to fix them all so quick. It’s going to be awesome’. And then, it didn’t work.

I put the script in PHP, but it’s on big commerce and they don’t accept PHP. So next up I’m on different forums trying to figure it out. And, I think I got it now. I tested in a sandbox and am getting ready to push it out live. So the challenge of fixing technical SEO at scale is really rewarding.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in SEO and client management?

You have to build trust and become a teacher to help people understand SEO and the importance and impact of this work.

If a company has hired you to do SEO work, they will hopefully have some level of understanding that there’s not an amazingly quick win in this work. Like, you can’t guarantee first-page results in a few weeks. With that being said, I think it’s good to tackle the quick wins first so you can come back to your client, share, and create energy around the work. Like, ‘Boom! 16,000 errors fixed in like day’. It’s good to give some quick results at the beginning while also setting expectations that SEO work is a marathon, not a sprint.

What advice would you give someone starting out at Tuff?

The clients are great. I think there is a good process for making sure clients are equally the right fit for Tuff where we can build a relationship and communicate transparently. This lets you really focus on the results you’re able to get for them and do a great job in that work.

A growth marketing team working at a table.

How We Created a Career Framework For Growth on a Small Team

A growth marketing team working at a table.

At the time of writing this, we’re a 5-person team. 

As a profitable but bootstrapped company, our growth is intentional and focused on the needs of our team and clients. We’re excited to grow in the next few years but not rapidly.

With that in mind, not everyone can (or wants to) be a people manager. We’ve been asking ourselves, “What does a career path look like for someone at Tuff?”.

We have awesome clients and certainly, we’re learning every day when it comes to our areas of expertise. One of the things we love most about growth marketing is the constant experimentation and diversity of client needs and growth channels. This has brought us to our second question, “How can we reward role expertise in the same way management is rewarded?”.

To try and answer these questions explicitly or, at the least, facilitate conversations about them as a team we’ve created a Career Framework for each role at Tuff. 

Our Career Framework serves the team in two ways:

  • A system of Levels and Steps for each role means teammates have the opportunity to grow in flexible ways
  • Each Level and Step has a role salary assigned that serves as a variable in our compensation model

Creating a Career Framework

Let’s dive into the Career Framework! Here are the steps we took to build ours:

  1. List out your Company Roles
  2. Create your Career Framework matrix
  3. Define the Levels for each role and the Steps for your company
  4. Calibrate with your team and make sure everyone knows what Level + Step they are in

Okay, now for the nitty-gritty. Here’s how to apply each step and what it looks like at Tuff:

1. List out your Company Roles

At Tuff there are two core roles on the team. At the highest level, they are:

  • Growth Marketer: Looks holistically at a client’s existing condition, finds the bottlenecks preventing them from achieving their goals, and corrects them with innovative improvements
  • Channel Specialist: Focuses exclusively on one platform or channel (i.e. PPC Specialist, SEO Strategist). They have a strong marketing foundation and specialize in one or two areas

2. Create your Career Framework matrix

Once you have your company roles listed out, the next step is to create a company-wide career progression chart. In the following steps, you’ll customize for each of these roles you’ve now listed out but you want to start from the same set of Levels and Steps for each role. 

Here’s the template we use for each role at Tuff:

Tuff career framework

Levels

At Tuff, there are 5 Levels for every role: Entry, Intermediate, Advanced, Expert, and Principal. Levels are distinct jumps in terms of area knowledge, role complexity, and scope of work. 

Steps

At Tuff, there are 5 Steps housed within each Level that are meant to mark smaller milestones of growth. They are defined by Ownership and Initiative, two behaviors that we believe are important to encourage on our team. Steps are defined company-wide, not dependent on role.

3. Define the Levels for each role and the Steps for your company

This is where you put your Company Roles and Career Framework matrix together, it’s where the magic happens! 

Using our structure of 5 Levels of growth, we’ve defined benchmark responsibilities and what performance looks like based on Knowledge, Role Complexity, and Scope of Work at each Level for both the Growth Marketer and Channel Specialist roles at Tuff. 

We’ll share our Growth Marketer Levels so you can see it in action:

Benchmark

  • Look holistically at a client’s existing condition, find the bottlenecks preventing them from achieving their goals, and correct them with innovative improvements
  • Manage a team of channel experts to enable them to achieve client growth goals 
  • Develop and implement a testing process to collect data and fast learnings to make improvements 
  • Have 5+ years experience in marketing, working across SEO, growth marketing, paid acquisition, conversion rate optimization, content strategy, link building
  • 2+ years experience in client management 

Tuff careers framework

Step Chart

At Tuff, there are 5 Steps housed within each Level meant to mark smaller milestones of growth. We’ve chosen to define them by Ownership and Initiative because, for us, these are behaviors we want to encourage and build on. They might be different for your company. 

Steps are defined company-wide, meaning they are the same for every role:

Tuff careers framework.

How this connects to our compensation model

We wanted to create a compensation model that was flexible enough to adjust for factors like experience and location but broad enough that it didn’t require in depth calculations and research every time we bring on a new team member. 

It was also important to us to use a data source and apply structure to our salaries to reduce bias and hold us accountable to paying people fairly. We wanted simplicity and objectivity. Enter: Compensation Formula.

By creating our Career Framework, our compensation model then becomes a formula with two inputs: 

  • Role Salary [Level, Step]
  • Cost of Living Multiplier 

The Role Salary [Level, Step] comes directly from our Career Framework. Using this Career Framework, we’ve entered early-stage company salary data at each level of experience for every role at Tuff. 

Here it is in action for our Growth Marketer role:

Tuff careers framework

This is based on market rates for San Francisco. Then, depending on our team member’s location we adjust the salary based on cost of living. For more on how we calculate the Cost of Living Multiplier, check out this blog post

Continue Reading

We’ve worked closely as a team to develop our Career Frameworks. It’s always a work in progress so please reach out if you have any feedback or questions.

While building our own version that works for Tuff, we’ve also leaned on some great existing resources. If you’re interested in learning more about Career Frameworks, here are some of our favorite reads:

How We’ve Connected Salary to Both Personal and Company Growth

Comp.

Whether you finish the rest of that word with -ensation or -licated, compensation is an important piece of running a business and hiring a great team. 

We are dedicated to creating a great place to work where team members understand how they can grow and develop at Tuff. Also, as a bootstrapped team, it is important for each of us to understand how our spend impacts our overall profit and ability to help our clients grow. 

To support these behaviors, we compensate our team in two ways: Base Salary tied to a Career Framework and Profit Sharing

Base Salary through a Compensation Formula

We wanted to create a compensation formula that was flexible enough to adjust for factors like experience and location but broad enough that it didn’t require in depth calculations and research every time we bring on a new team member. 

It was also important to us to use a data source and apply structure to our salaries to reduce bias and hold us accountable to paying people fairly. 

We wanted simplicity and objectivity. Enter: a compensation formula.

We share this with the whole team:

We’ll break it all down below.

Role Salary: How do Levels & Steps work?

We’ve created a Career Framework with a system of Levels and Steps for each role to make sure teammates have the opportunity to grow in flexible ways. 

Levels: Levels make up the vertical axis of the career framework. At Tuff, there are 5 levels for individual contributors: Entry, Intermediate, Advanced, Expert, and Principal. Levels are defined for each role at Tuff and mark distinct jumps in terms of area knowledge, role complexity, and scope. 

Steps: Steps make up the horizontal axis of the career framework. At Tuff, there are 5 steps housed within each Level and are meant to mark smaller milestones of growth. Steps are defined at a company level, not specific to your role. Rather, they are defined by increasing amounts of Ownership and Initiative. 

Using this Career Framework, we’ve entered early-stage company salary data at each level of experience for every role at Tuff. 

Here it is in action for our Growth Marketer role:

Cost of Living Multiplier: How do we adjust for remote?

We have been remote from the start and a big piece of that decision was wanting to access talent from anywhere in the world. We chose a high cost of living city as our benchmark so we can keep our salaries competitive. 

We start by understanding the difference in cost of living in the team member’s city compared to San Francisco. Using Numbeo, we calculate the Adjusted Cost of Living + Rent Index to compare two cities. Then, using this number the city falls into a defined Cost of Living Band. 

Adjusted Cost of Living + Rent Index

This compares the Cost of Living + Rent Index between two cities. By starting with a base of $1,000 in San Francisco, we look up how much money we would need to have the same standard of living as the city we’re comparing. 

Cost of Living Bands

By finding the Adjusted Cost of Living + Rent Index, each city falls into one of the following bands:

 

The Cost of Living Multipliers

These calculations help us get to the final number needed for the compensation formula. Once we know what Cost of Living Band a city falls in, we can use the Cost of Living Multiplier to reach our final base salary. 

Putting it all together

As a reminder, here is our compensation formula:

Let’s pretend we’re about to make an offer to a new Growth Marketer on the team who is based out of Portland. We were looking to hire someone who fell into our Level 4 definition of a Growth Marketer and we found someone great! 

We decided to make them an offer at Level 4, Step 2 and pull that Role Salary from our Career Framework.

To dive deeper into our compensation formula, you can view our spreadsheet here →.

Profit Sharing

The other piece to how we compensate Tuff employees is through Profit Sharing. 

Because we’re a small team, everyone works directly with clients and shares responsibility in driving their growth. The more our client’s grow, the more we grow and we wanted that to reflect in our compensation. We don’t offer the traditional stock options that some startups and public companies do but Tuff’s team members are critical to our success on every level.

We distribute profit sharing on a quarterly basis so once you’ve been at Tuff for a quarter, you are eligible. We look at Tuff’s profit balance, your time at Tuff, and your performance to calculate each team member’s share. 

At this point in Tuff’s growth, the amount we offer in profit sharing is quite low. It’s not going to give someone the ability to retire anytime soon! But, it’s important to us to offer profit sharing so early because each team member truly is an owner in our Tuff’s growth. 

Continue Reading

We’ve worked closely as a team to develop our compensation formula and to make the decision to offer profit sharing. 

While building our own version that works for Tuff, we’ve also leaned on some great existing resources. If you’re interested in learning more about compensation formulas and profit sharing, here are some of our favorite reads: