Crystal Wong is a brilliant SEO consultant based in Melbourne, Australia. She runs Sky Blue Search as well as being Mum to her young daughter. I've followed Crystal for a few years now and was always impressed with what she had to say, and was honestly quite envious that she's never seems to be selling her services through social media - aka she's always quite busy 💪
I'd also heard that she'd had quite a successful year, earning over $100k from her SEO consultancy services, which is no mean feat when you're also raising a young child as a single parent. I'd listened to her talk on a few podcasts and reached out to see if she was keen to be featured here - thankfully she was.
Matt: You started your career out as a pharmacist - what was that like, and why the change over to SEO? Is there anything you miss about your old job?
Crystal: Studying pharmacy was great, very broad and academic science course which I enjoyed.
However actually working as a pharmacist I found didn’t involve a lot of science or analytical thinking. The day to day of being a pharmacist, even in hospital, is more about dispensing the right medication for the right person. Important as it is, it wasn’t for me.
I didn’t enjoy the repetitive nature and the lack of a career path so I left the profession and went looking for something that suited me more. I don’t miss anything about the actual work I left.
I did make many great friends during my time as a pharmacist and pharmacy student and if anything, I miss those times.
Matt: I’d heard you mention on a podcast (The Recipe for SEO Success) that during the first year of maternity leave, you set yourself up an online store using Shopify, selling second hand baby clothes. How did that come about, and how did you find life as an online merchant? I can imagine you learned a lot from running an online business in this way!
Crystal: I spent 3 months volunteering in Cambodia in 2015 where amongst other amazing experiences, I saw where fast fashion is made. Not long after my time in Cambodia, I had my daughter.
I became very aware of the impact on the environment that we were having - especially with the amount of resources it takes to bring up a baby.
During my daughter’s first year I set up Calico Babies which was an online marketplace for second hand baby clothes. My aim was to alleviate the impact of have a baby on the environment by making buying and selling secondhand baby clothes an easier and more enjoyable experience for busy parents.
I was the middle person sorting, cleaning, photographing and uploading clothes and also selling the clothes through Shopify and taking a cut of the sale. In the end, it was a logistical nightmare - keeping track of who sold what - and a lot of ironing!
I burned out after a year. That year I somehow managed to start an online business, do a diploma in digital marketing as well as become a first time mum to my baby.
It was a crash course in marketing though. I learned email marketing, social media marketing, business set up etc. I also got my first taste of SEO!
Matt: You’ve mentioned that SEO as an industry has a bad reputation. What do you think has led to this, and what can be done to move away - and to improve things?
Crystal: I think SEO, like many aspects of digital, is very difficult for a lay person like a business owner to grasp.
- It takes a while to work, so the SEO provider may be legitimately working on the campaign or not working at all and it may take months to realise
- It’s not widely understood what needs to happen for SEO to work and how resource intensive it can be
- Many things have to happen for SEO to work, including input from the client / business owner.
- SEO needs to be well resourced with not only SEO strategy but developer and content resources, this isn’t well understood and the campaign can be held up at any point
- It’s easy for an SEO provider to lose motivation if strategy isn’t implemented
I found that a lot of clients come to me because of lack of communication from a previous provider, so communication may be something that SEOs aren’t good at.
It’s easy to get lost as just one of the clients in an agency, where the attitude is churn and burn. Agencies needs to have amazing processes for quality not to be lost somewhere between strategy and implementation and communication.
Matt: As an independent SEO consultant what do you think is the hardest part of your day-to-day work? Perhaps something that might not be obvious to those who are employed by an agency or similar?
Crystal: The hardest part is not really having anyone to talk through strategies with and working on projects on my own without anyone to bounce ideas off.
I imagine in agency land SEOs would be able to consult each other and ask things like “am I doing this right?” and maybe even have a teacher teaching you the way they do things.
I’ve learned SEO through courses and experience and it’s hard not really knowing if that’s how other SEOs operate in real life.
I do have a few SEOs that I’m friends with, but I wouldn’t impose every niggling question I might have on them.
Matt: As an SEO consultant myself something I’ve struggled with before is finding my calling - and whether I think that life as an SEO does cater for this. How do you find it, and any tips for those people like myself who might doubt this now and then?
Crystal: I don’t know!
I think I had been building out a career in SEO the past few years and hadn’t reached a point of questioning yet. I think I’m reaching that point now and wondering if I want to be working for clients forever.
I think my values are similar to yours and at one point I wanted to focus on sustainable, environmentally friendly businesses but my niching down is going slowly.
I’ve recently started a website about education and schools. Initially it was just a side project that I thought might make me some money one day as a niche site, but I’ve become very invested and curious about the education of young people.
Perhaps this is how you find meaning in SEO? Side projects that don’t have much to do with SEO? Or making money with SEO and using it to fund your values? I’m not entirely sure…
Matt: What does your typical day-to-day work life look like? Do you typically follow a set routine each day? What’s your work setup like?
Crystal: I have a pretty relaxed day. My day typically goes like this
Before 9am - morning rush before school
9am - school drop off
9-10.30 - go for a swim or walk and get a coffee
10.30 - 1pm - go home and work
1pm-2 / 2.30pm lunch and break
2-3pm - work
3pm - school pick up
So either I finish at 3 or 5 depending on the day. Mum helps me pick up my daughter 2 afternoons a week, allowing me to work later.
I do some hours on the weekends I don’t have my daughter as well.
Matt: Do you think that, as someone who identifies as being female and a person of colour, you have found it harder to break through within the SEO industry? What do you think needs to happen in order to make it easier for women, nonbinary people and people of colour to craft a successful career in this space?
Crystal: I’ve honestly never thought about myself as disadvantaged. Sure I might be Asian, female, single mother - a minority within a minority within a minority, but I’m also privileged to have been born and raised in a rich and safe country with free education and free healthcare. I have the advantage of unlimited, ( relatively ) fast internet for work and a comfortable environment to work in.
Maybe I’m oblivious, but I don’t feel limited by being a minority. That’s not to say discrimination against minorities doesn’t happen, it does, but working for myself, somewhat outside of a traditional system makes me feel like anything is possible.
Matt: On your website you mention you’re a mum to a young girl - first of all, congratulations! Secondly, asking as a parent myself, how do you manage to cope with the pressures of parenting and running your own consultancy? Is it as hard as everyone else says it is?
Crystal: As you’d know it’s a bit of a juggle, especially during school holidays!
My most important priority and motivation is her and providing for her, not only resources to put into education, safety etc but my time. I think working for myself in SEO has allowed me that balance.
I’m grateful that SEO is relatively well paid and is the kind of job where time is uncoupled from results / productivity to an extent. If I worked, say at the supermarket, or was still a pharmacist, I would have to physically be present at work, every hour I was paid for, thereby either limiting my earnings or limiting the time I spend with her. However hard freelancing gets, I’m always aware that it’s allowed me the best of both worlds and this is a huge privilege.
I’m lucky to be my own boss so I don’t have to feel guilty or ask permission to take time off, finish early or start late. I know I will just make up for it later.
So is it hard? Yes and no. There’s obviously the instability of freelancing, not knowing if / when you’ll land your next client, the lack of external validation, the uncertainty of if what you’re doing is right etc etc
But everything is hard - working in a job would be hard, working as a pharmacist would be hard, working as a labourer would be hard…. I would pick this kind of hard because it suits my personality and abilities the most, which make it easier than other career choices.
Matt: I love the clarity of the services you offer as you’ve listed them on your website - I imagine as a potential client it’s very helpful to get this insight, even before they’ve reached out to you. Do you find that most of your clients come via your website, perhaps organically, or do they come from referrals, networking, or elsewhere? Is there a lot of time spent filtering out and turning away clients?
Crystal: Haha thank you, I looked at my offerings since I put up that site when I first started. I hope it’s still relevant!
Pretty much all clients come via word of mouth, referrals through people I’ve worked with or industry colleagues eg Google ads specialists, web developers, copywriters.
I don’t think I spend a lot of time filtering clients. If they’re unsuitable I’m pretty straight up with them very early on.
I have to stop myself from looking too deep into their site until I’m fairly certain they’ll sign on. I used to find myself spending time digging through sites of potentials before they gave the go ahead just because I was curious.
Matt: Operating under Sky Blue Search, vs using your own name, was this a strategic decision - maybe to allow you to hire other people, or work alongside other consultants further down the line? Or, am I just over-analysing, and you just liked the idea of operating under a business name? 🙂
Crystal: I used to think maybe I’d expand into an agency one day. After quite a lot of soul searching and thinking, I realise I enjoy what I do - I actually enjoy doing the SEO.
I don’t want to manage people and I don’t know how to scale to more people without compromising quality.
I’ve become more efficient in how I work with my assistant, and that has allowed me to expand while keeping in control of quality and still limiting my hours.
Matt: What do you do to disconnect after a hard day at work - what helps you to switch off, and what do you enjoy doing away from the screen?
Crystal: Nature helps me switch off. I love walking in parks and forests and luckily we have a few in Australia. I also love coffee. So coffee and a walk with a friend is my perfect day away from the screen.
Matt: I’ve heard you talk about suffering from imposter syndrome on another SEO podcast (I’m not stalking you, honest!) - as many other SEO’s also suffer with this, what kind of tips can you suggest, if any?
Crystal: Reminds me of a kids book - We’re going on a bear hunt. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, have to go through it.
Work and learn until you can show yourself evidence that you’re not an imposter. I remember crying from imposter syndrome when I started. I think people who care a lot suffer from it the most. I couldn’t bear the thought of taking someone’s money and trust and undertaking a task I wasn’t sure I could do. So made sure it worked. I made sure that I put in everything I had, over and above what they paid me for, to get results to show them and myself.
Matt: I’d heard you broke the $100k net-profit mark recently - huge congratulations for hitting such a big milestone from your SEO consultancy work! Do you set yourself financial goals or targets to hit, or do you just tend to let things happen naturally? Do you think it’s very realistic for other SEO’s to hit such levels?
Crystal: I did set that goal. I want to buy a house in Melbourne and need a level of income to do that!
I think in SEO and working for yourself anything is possible - sky is the limit which is why I love it. I’m not limited by someone else judging me or how a system judges me.
It’s very possible to hit that mark living in Australia. I can’t speak for other countries.
Taking an honest look, it only takes 4 clients paying $1500 to reach a monthly income of $6000, annually $72000.
Obviously that’s not including expenses, but that is a reasonable income for an average person in Australia.
I read a comment somewhere that stuck with me….most people are 2-3 clients away from replacing their full time income. When it’s put that way, it doesn’t seem so unachievable to work for yourself.
Matt: You mentioned online about starting a side project in the education sector - do you mind sharing more details about that?
Crystal: I'm still feeling my way around and trying to understand what I'm trying to do myself. I guess it all started because my daughter is in primary school now and I have a lot of opinions about school because I’ll soon need to find a high school for her. Over here in Australia there’s a private school system and a public school system.
Private school is ridiculously expensive and with public school you have to live in the right zone to get into the school, so it's quite overwhelming that I need to think about where she's going to go to school in six years time! Even to think about if I'm going to buy a house, should I buy it in the zone if she's going to go to. Or will I make enough money by then to send her to a private school, so it's all just really overwhelming to think about.
The website I’ve been working on called MelbourneSchools has been covering the tours I’ve had at different schools, giving my own opinions on them. I’d love to later look at expanding to interview principals of schools when I’m more confident about it, as you rarely get to hear from them and I feel that culture comes from the top. I’ve also setup a Facebook Group for parents in Melbourne to talk about schools. I’ve even thought about podcasts too but it’s a bit overwhelming to find the time for everything!
Matt: How have you found client work so far, is everything going well and you’re still busy?
Crystal: I'm happy to say that it's going really pretty well. I'm four and a half years in to working in SEO, so I think I'm getting to the point where I know enough people that refer clients to me. I'm lucky enough to not have to do any marketing of myself - I don't have to talk on LinkedIn. I don't like to talk about it in case it dries up but it's not like I don't know when my next client is gonna land. At the moment it's been pretty consistent.
Matt: How do you think you’ve got into that position, is it from physically going out to events and networking, reaching out to developers to build up partnerships, or has it just happened naturally?
Crystal: There’s this digital marketing Facebook group - it's a paid group and a lot of my initial clients came from there. Then I think through working with those initial clients then you work with those clients developers and those clients copywriters, I think that was fairly organic. I mean especially in the last couple of years I haven't actually gone to many networking events due to moving and lock down.
Matt: Was that a generic digital marketing Facebook group?
Crystal: So when I learned SEO I learned it from A lady called Kate Toon she's an Australian, she's actually from the UK but she lives in Sydney now. She teaches SEO so I did her course when I started and then when I came out on my own she had this private group and it's a group for digital marketing in general so it's not just SEO so it actually works out quite well because you know some people with small businesses in there, and a few developers. I've been in there for three or four years now so people get to know you.
Matt: And how do you find working from home - do you ever miss not working in person with others, or do you make an effort to go out and meet up with others in your industry?
Crystal: I think it’s very natural to need a community so yeah - I’ve got a couple of SEO’s that I meet up with in real life. There was one that I used to meet up with pretty often but that's not happening anymore but there's another couple of ladies that I meet up with every few months. I also talk to my developer on the phone, he's not in Melbourne but Sydney. So yeah it definitely helps to have people to talk to and you know especially when you share a client and you want to vent about it, it’s therapeutic.
👏 Thanks to Crystal for sharing her thoughts with me!
I hope you've enjoyed learning more about Crystal and her life as an SEO specialist! You can connect with Crystal at any of the links below:
If you fancy having a chat about issues around purpose-driven businesses, or anything else that might fall under the ethical marketing category, please don’t hesitate to reach out.