This post contains a pretty big announcement, but I’d like to start with some context and reflection on the last seven years.
Celebrating Seven Years of Experimentation
I’ve always considered May 1st, 2015 to be UpBuild’s birthday, but that’s not a cut-and-dried start date.
I had already built the first website and begun using the UpBuild name a few weeks earlier in April. The nascent company received its first lead from a prospective client a few weeks before. I got a signature on a simple proposal shortly after that. It wouldn’t be until mid-May that a retired music business lawyer I found on Thumbtack would help me file UpBuild’s Articles of Incorporation with the State of Oregon.
Yet it was on May 1st that I made my very first purchase as an entrepreneur — one annual license to Screaming Frog, the prerequisite tool for nearly all technical SEO. This was when it suddenly felt real; I had founded an SEO agency.
That was seven years ago to the day. I’ve now been working at UpBuild for longer than I’ve ever worked any job in my life.* That’s been true for the last few years (my previous record was about four and a half years), but it blows my mind all over again each time I remember.
* I’m incredibly proud that four other UpBuild team members can also say the same thing.
Five years, let alone seven, is a lifetime on the internet. I’ve learned so much, and I’ve seen so much change in SEO and business. I’ve made countless mistakes, learned even more lessons, dealt with some incredibly hard things, and won some incredible victories. The victory that I’m proudest of is simply seeing UpBuild exist and witnessing the team thrive. This experiment that I began working on in 2015 has become more successful than I ever could have imagined.
I’ll probably always think of UpBuild as an experiment. One where we’re continually developing hypotheses about new and better ways to do great technical marketing and then adding, subtracting, or otherwise modifying variables and observing the outcome. Everything we do here is written in code, not in stone. While we may not be reinventing the wheel every year, we’re constantly changing. We’re almost always improving by changing variables.
The variable that’s changing in Year Eight of this experiment is me.
Welcome UpBuild’s Next CEO
Today, I’m officially stepping down as UpBuild’s CEO, and my long-time right hand is stepping up. Ruth Burr Reedy is taking the helm as UpBuild’s second CEO, and I couldn’t be more excited about it.
Ruth brings a decade and a half of industry experience to the table and will be a phenomenal CEO of this company. There’s no single person in SEO or business that I’ve worked more closely with or trust more. We’ve been working on this transition since the beginning of the year, and I’ve become more confident in Ruth’s ability to take on this next challenge with every passing day.
One fact that inspires confidence in me is that Ruth wasn’t gunning to be the CEO of a company, much like I never wanted to be an entrepreneur. Both of us have first and foremost sought to make UpBuild a great company with a fulfilled and functional team. It was never the titles that were important, and neither of us felt that being “in charge” was a goal in and of itself. It was about building the company that we wanted to see exist in the world.
The Road to 2030
I’ve frequently used a thought exercise called “UpBuild 2030”. It’s an open-ended question that asks, “What will UpBuild look like 15 years from its founding?“. Recently, it’s boiled down to, “What version of UpBuild do I want to see thriving in the world by the year 2030?”. The obvious next question to ask is, “How will we get there?”.
I know that UpBuild can continue to be a great company in the years to come, and even get better over time. When I try to peer into the future to glimpse UpBuild in 2030, I see amazing things. But when I ask myself, “What’s the most effective and most UpBuildy way for us to get there?“, I can see clearly that I’m not the one best suited for the CEO role. Ruth is.
What the UpBuild team needs at this point is a driven and passionate leader. A leader who’s ready to blaze the trail forward and help the team achieve its full potential. One who’s excited to figure out the next phase of growth and the upcoming changes in the industry, and work with the team as their mentor and partner to help get to that new horizon together.
My time as the CEO of this company has come to a close. And I’m ready to pass the torch. The reality is that the “Founder CEO” job is quite different from the CEO job that UpBuild needs now. I’ve realized that the founding CEO’s role played to my strengths perfectly. I had to will a company into existence fueled by idealism and angst. I had to recruit the core team, carefully choose our guiding values, and convince early clients to take a chance on a relatively untested SEO agency. I had to define how and why we did what we did, build a reputation for the agency, and then turn it into a “real company” (and try to suss out what that even meant along the way).
I’ve done that, so the part that I had to play in UpBuild’s story is coming to a natural conclusion. The CEO that UpBuild needs now is not the same CEO that it needed in the beginning. As Ruth takes the helm, she’ll be helping write the next chapter of UpBuild’s story. One in which UpBuild can transcend its founder and chart its own course.
Beyond that, UpBuild needs to continue being the change we all want to see in the world. In 2015, I wanted to see an SEO agency where huge geeks could do work they loved, in a great environment, for clients they were proud to partner with. I can confidently say that we’ve achieved that, but there’s still a lot more change needed in the SEO industry. We need to see SEO agencies that can grow sustainably over the course of a decade without having to seek an acquisition or merger to “access more opportunities to do impactful work”; we need to see more SEO agencies that can be sustainably great over the long haul; most important to me personally, we need to see more SEO agencies led by women. We don’t need any more SEO firms led by people like me (i.e., white-passing cis men wearing plaid button-ups, beanies, and facial hair).
I’m more excited about UpBuild’s future than I’ve been in years. And that’s saying something. I can get pretty excited about things.
What About Mike?
There are likely questions. Questions like, “Why?” “Who just gives up control of their company?” “Are you still involved?” There may still be others like, “Did you burn out?” or “Are you retiring?”.
First things first: I’m not leaving UpBuild. I’m simply stepping back from my day-to-day involvement. Effective today, my title is changing to Founder & Head of Business Operations. I will be working at UpBuild part-time for at least the next few years, managing the nuts and bolts of UpBuild’s operations so that Ruth doesn’t have to. What happens after that isn’t yet determined, but I plan to be around for the foreseeable future.
If you’re a client or are thinking about becoming one, I’m not going to be on calls or Zoom meetings. As far as the team is concerned, I’ll still interface with them for an occasional outside perspective, but I won’t be an active manager. Ruth is the new go-to for anything anyone might have been inclined to come to me with.
But Why, Though?
Okay. Let’s talk about why I’m stepping back from my own company. The reason is simple — I’ve achieved everything I set out to do when I founded UpBuild.
Before I started my own SEO agency, I worked for a company called SwellPath. It was the formative experience of my professional life. I went from the most junior of junior employees in 2010 to the Director of both the SEO and Analytics divisions by the time the company was sold in early 2015. Through an unsavory — though not entirely unexpected — chain of events, I was dismissed and shown the door on April 14th, 2015 (long story; ask me sometime).
My last few years at SwellPath taught me how awesome it could be to have a hand in leading a company and shaping a workplace. It also taught me how great it could be to do SEO to the best of your ability with a team and clients you care about. While SwellPath was still a few years away from it, I feel like I was able to glimpse the holy grail of what an SEO agency could be.
When I had the rug pulled out from under me, I only had one thought: how can I get back on that path?
And so it was that I set my sights on building the company that I dreamed of working for. Honestly, if I’d seen that my dream company already existed, I would have just applied for a job there. Starting my own business was the last thing I wanted to do at that point.
I set out to build the life I wanted to live. I founded and conceptualized UpBuild as a framework within which technical marketing geeks could do great work, in conditions that didn’t suck, for clients they could be proud to partner with. That’s what I wanted to create, in a nutshell.
Today, UpBuild has the most brilliant and coolest team I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. We’ve grown the company sustainably and used values to guide us there. We get rave reviews from our clients, and people love working here (we’ve even won awards for being a “Happiest Company“!). UpBuild has become everything I dreamed it would be and more. I’m content with what I’ve accomplished.
However, while deeply interesting, the next stage of growth and becoming a truly great agency CEO isn’t something that calls to me. I think that I could be happy leading a team of four or five folks indefinitely (i.e., I’m happiest being in a five-piece punk band where the members can all fit in an Econoline tour van), but shaping UpBuild’s future to fit around my personal preferences would be a profound disservice to all the opportunities that are still available to this company and this team.
If this were someone else’s company where I was an employee, I’d probably be at the point of exploring a new career. Not because I wanted to leave the company, but because I was ready for something new.
More than achieving the next level of success, a company exit (sale/merger), or more of the same great stuff for another seven years, my greatest desire is for more whitespace in my life. I intend to embrace a slower pace of work and life; I plan to spend a lot more time with family; I’m excited to nurture space in my day-to-day existence to see what that might lead to.
I want to wake up each morning and spend time with my daughter as the sun rises over our home. I want to cook breakfast for my wife and then watch the birds together. Then I want to take advantage of this new optionality, where I can work on what interests me most that day. Whether that means becoming a better web developer, writing, optimizing UpBuild’s back-office process, learning a Bach arrangement on classical guitar (or arranging Hans Zimmer, for that matter), manufacturing serendipity by helping new entrepreneurs, or pruning my tomato plants. While I might create something new in the future that’s economically viable (e.g., an app, a product), I don’t imagine I’ll form another company. It definitely would be a solo project.
This is what “building the life I want to live” looks like for me these days. And it’s not something that needs to remain on hold until I achieve some far-off and ill-defined next level of success. I’m glad that I was able to take the time to discover that there was a true win-win here. In this scenario, UpBuild can continue to thrive with an even better leader, and I can also explore other dreams.
So many people have played a part in the success that UpBuild enjoys today. The clients we’ve had the honor of working with, the communities we’ve been privileged to be part of, and most importantly, the great team members who have taken the leap to work with us over the years. Tyler, Laura, Will, Ruth, Alex, Michelle, Ashley, James M., Ryan, Nick, Ila, Danielle, Alana T, Tiffany, Gaby, Alaina O, and Jamie: sure, I founded the company, but you are what made it successful.
This is absolutely not goodbye. I’ll see you soon.