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My Story

Just a little background...hope you enjoy reading this.

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From NYC jazz musician to CEO of a multimillion-dollar marketing agency.

I wasn’t supposed to be an SEO guy

Our music teacher handed out flutophones in 3rd grade, and as you would expect, 26 kids blowing into plastic recorders for the first time created a deafening racket.

“Ok, stop, stop, stop!”

“If I hear one more note or squeak, I’m taking them all away!”

Everyone shuddered, and the room got quiet.

The Sammy Davis Jr song “Candy Man” was stuck in my head. Maybe it was playing in the car on the way to school that morning.

I put the flutophone back in my mouth and started playing the melody.

”Who can take a sunrise….Sprinkle it with dew…” – you all know that tune, right?

“STOP!!!!!” she screamed.

“Wait a minute……who’s playing that???” The whole class turned and looked at me like, oh boy, you’re busted now.

“Tommy!!!!” she screamed, smiling, “keep playing.”

She let me continue, and for some reason, my fingers went to the right spots, and I played the whole tune from memory.

It appeared that I had some kind of musical gift, which got a pretty emotional response from the adults in the room that day.

Fast forward to 2003

I was living in NYC, playing the upright bass professionally, and getting my ass kicked by some of the best jazz musicians on the planet.

The city attracts music prodigies from all over the world…the best of the best…and some have genuinely magical powers. They play with the intensity of a shark attack, as smooth as silk on glass.

Not only can they burn the house down with their technical abilities, but they can take you on a journey from beginning to end: set up, conflict, and resolution.

I wanted this.

Eating a .39-cent bowl of Ramen at my tiny kitchen table in Brooklyn, I asked, “Will I ever be able to play at this level?” “Will I be able to support a family doing this?”

Those kitchen walls heard me ask these questions a lot.

“Shut up and practice! Take care of the music, and the music will take care of you,” was the only answer I ever got.

Getting my sea legs

I sublet my apartment, rented a minivan, and drove from Brooklyn to Miami to play jazz trio on a cruise ship for nine months. (which turned into three years)

The cool thing about working on a cruise ship is that you can really tune out the noise and responsibility of normal life and just work on your craft.

No cooking or cleaning required. Just belly up to the trough, grab your food, leave your dishes on the table, and go practice your instrument.

There’s no networking and hustling to set up gigs because we’re booked every night in the same lounge.

No more carrying my 6’ bass through the subway station during rush hour or sitting on the platform waiting for the train at 3 AM.

It was smooth sailing, pun intended, for someone with a serious work ethic. A strong work ethic was something I had then and still have today.

Practice all day long.

I loved my mornings on the ship.

I’d grab my French press, bass, and metronome and rush to my practice spot near the window on deck 5. I think it was the Promenade Lounge.

The upright bass is a beast, a monster much bigger and meaner than me.

I was determined, but determination is nothing special. One must be determined and advance in the right direction to achieve desirable results.

…play everything super slowly and perfectly, big tone, in tune, swinging, positive energy, then gradually speed it up…notch by notch on the metronome…constant repetition to build muscle memory and connect those neurons.

It’s exhausting, painful, and feels awful.

Wynton Marsalis said, “If you sound good in your practice room, you’re not practicing,” so I made sure I sounded horrible for 5 hours a day.

My mantra was “Torture in the practice room = joy on the gig”.

The gig in the ship’s “Jazz Lounge”

In our minds, it was the Village Vanguard, dead quiet, packed with jazz professors, legends, and heavies hanging on every note and musical passage.

In reality, it was a wacky and overly colorful bar with huge plastic trumpets coming out of the walls, and the guests couldn’t care less about us.

The lack of attention we got worked in our favor. We played for ourselves, worked on our craft, and stretched our personal boundaries and limitations.

Jazz, like any language, has its own grammar and nuance. The more you practice and play, the more fluent you become, and the better you communicate with your instrument.

Five one-hour sets a night, every night, was WAY more jazz trio playing than we could ever do in NYC.

Our vocabulary expanded, our ears got sharper, our hands got stronger, and our connection to the collective unconscious deepened.

With all of that playing, the notes on the bass become massive and agile, like a cartoon rhino gymnast.

Playing with that trio felt quite effortless at times. I would relax my mind, get out of the way, and the bass played itself. Or, maybe it played me.

And something else happens

Time slows down, and the spaces between the notes expand to become broader and more profound.

You could sit quietly in those millisecond gaps, patiently waiting for inspiration.

Like The Matrix, but way sweeter.

Each tiny vibration had its own space and purpose, connected with a soft rubbery bond, responding to our will.

Being in this space of improvised music is pure joy.

Done with ships. Back on land. Was I ready to “compete” in NYC?

They say music is not a competition, but that’s bullshit.

NYC jazz musicians are Olympic athletes at the highest level with talent, work ethic, and the desire to be the best.

I threw myself in, got some gigs, played as hard as possible, and started getting a little recognition.

To be clear, a little recognition was having some high-level musicians say, “hey man, you sound pretty good”.

My name was passed around, and I started getting called to play some good gigs.

The work was steady, but the jazz musician lifestyle is challenging in many ways. The music is complex, the competition is fierce, and the pay is abysmal.

I needed to make more money.

Sell my soul?

A premier private event booking agency asked me to audition for one of their bands on electric bass. This was the agency all the celebrities called when they wanted a 12-piece R&B band at their party.

I showed up, played a few dance tunes, and got the job. It paid $400 a gig.

The band was very good, and getting those $400 checks was nice.

Then, I got the entrepreneurial bug

Not just a bug. It was more of a fever that never went away.

Could I put my own wedding band together, choose great tunes, pay the musicians better than these other agencies, and make enough money to live in NYC and play jazz???

It was certainly worth a try—time to buckle down and get to work.

I picked 150 funky tunes, transcribed all the parts, wrote out the music, hired singers and musicians, directed rehearsals, and got a few local bar gigs for exposure.

Hard truths when you become a bandleader

The musicians in my band were not the weekend warrior types. They didn’t have day jobs. They were top-level professionals, all touring with big-name acts.

The weddings were just to supplement their income between tours. They agreed to rehearse without pay if I could book a $500 wedding every weekend.

The problem was that brides book the caterer and venue before hiring the bands. Many of the wedding band agencies were paying caterers and venues big chunks of money upfront for loyalty and referrals.

This was not a good time for me to learn that the New York City wedding industry is buttoned up tight and highly political.

Big chunks of money and caterer/venue connections were two things I did not have.

Now what?

How can I sidestep these caterers and get straight to the brides?

Where else do brides look for wedding vendors?

Google!!!

Was SEO my new calling?

I studied everything I could find on Search Engine Optimization: I took a few online courses, attended webinars, scoured every SEO blog, and bought a few books from Barnes and Noble.

With this new knowledge and a good friend that designs websites, I got to work and launched my first website, AboutRhythm.com.

The site started to rank, we got some calls, and I was able to book a wedding or private party almost every week, but by now, I was getting sick of the wedding business.

Having to MC, direct the band, work with the bride and the maître d’, play the bass, and handle all the day-to-day business was not gratifying enough for me.

There had to be a better way.

Then something clicked. This SEO stuff works, and it’s really cool.

SEO felt like a magic trick. You create optimized landing pages and build some links to make the phone ring.

Yeah, that’s amazing.

What else could I do with SEO?

Sometimes the answer is right under your nose

Not straying far from the nest, I built an online directory for wedding vendors.

It was a national website with a page for each vendor category and state. Vendors could log in, build their profile, and then pay $99 to make it live.

It was a big job. The site had a fully functional Web 2.0 backend, dashboard, and 500+ pages of original content.

I did the on-page SEO and got some authority links…bam, it ranked, and wedding vendors all around the country were buying subscriptions.

Now, for the first time, I was making money while practicing the bass.

Score!!!

BNI

I got a few nice offers from investors to buy the directory, so I let it go in 2008.

The final sale price was far from retirement money, but it gave me time to think and plan my next venture.

I joined BNI (Business Networkers International) to get the juices flowing again.

The meetings were filled with lawyers, insurance salespeople, chiropractors, stock brokers, financial advisors, business coaches, realtors, and other small business owners gathered for breakfast to receive and pass out referrals.

I went in as an SEO guy, and honestly, I felt really out of place, but I met some good people and got some clients.

Having clients and getting paid a monthly retainer was a giant leap for me.

Now I had a responsibility to a handful of business owners. Their websites had to rank and convert to provide an ROI, or they wasted money on me.

There was a lot on my plate: CMS, HTML, CSS, front-end design, user experience, content writing, on-page SEO, link building, pop-ups, sales funnels, email marketing, social media marketing, analysis, and reporting… plus all my business stuff like contracts, financial and legal, hiring and managing a team…I was busy.

In short, I charged fair prices, worked my ass off, and got excellent client results.

Everyone was happy.

The Yankee Clipper

My SEO business website was ranked for the search phrase “lawyer SEO” and got the attention of a personal injury law firm with an office in the Empire State Building. They invited me to meet them on the 94th floor.

By this time, I could talk the SEO game and had some excellent results and testimonials to back it up, so I was ready to give them a killer presentation.

Then I noticed they had an old baseball glove in a glass case.

The little gold plate said, “Joe DiMaggio – The Yankee Clipper.”

One attorney saw me looking at it and said they paid $4 Million for it.

My confidence plummeted.

This is the big leagues. All of those old doubts and fears came back. I’m I ready to compete in this arena?

They asked me one question.

“What would you do if we gave you $500,000 today?” then they stopped and stared.

I felt the weight of my body sinking deep into the chair and my tie getting tighter around my neck.

I said, “I’m probably not the biggest name on your list, but give me three days, and I’ll produce a detailed business plan that’ll knock your socks off.”

I went home and drilled WAY down into their website and all of their competitors’ sites, SEO, and backlink profiles to uncover every speck of valuable insight and data available.

The final piece was a 20-page proposal outlining every micro-step in my process to bring them from where they were, which was basically invisible online, to the top 3 in Google in 8 months.

I was proud of this proposal, but…

My analysis and business plan were too long and detailed for them, and it probably got tossed in the trash.

The Yankee Clipper job went to a marketing agency that submitted a 7-word proposal, “we’ll build you fifteen new injury websites.” (This was a horrible idea. None of those websites ever ranked.)

Niching down

Something good did come of The Yankee Clipper meeting and my lengthy analysis:

Law firms have money for marketing
SEO done right would make any law firm successful
I knew exactly how to outrank the top injury law sites in any city
There are loads of law firms in this country with the budget and desire to rank

That’s it. Decision made. I bought the domain name ApricotLaw.com and started a new business focused on SEO for law firms.

Nothing can stop you if you’re doing something for the right reasons.

The early days of ApricotLaw were so exhilarating.

Creating the best law firm SEO company was all I could think about.

A marginally better company was not the goal. I wanted to be 10 times better than everyone else.

I wanted ApricotLaw to be known as the Lamborghini of lawyer SEO.

“Lamborghini is refinement, luxury, and perfection.” — Ferruccio Lamborghini.

My clients would get the slickest law firm website designs, the most profound content, the cleanest on-page SEO, and the most relevant and powerful backlinks.

We would outmaneuver all of our competitors. My clients would win online and get the lion’s share of leads.

I stopped playing music almost entirely. ApricotLaw was my new driving force.

ApricotLaw was my Everest.

Rob Greenstein

A meeting with Rob Greenstein, a prominent NYC personal injury lawyer, was set up by a fellow BNI member.

We sat in his Manhattan office for a while, just talking smack. Rob is one of the coolest guys you’ll ever meet.

I knew what he needed to win online from a pure SEO standpoint, but I didn’t try to get him as a client.

This was a great learning opportunity for me, and trying to make a sale would get in the way.

My goal was to get to know him and his perspective on his business and clients so that I could understand their needs and pain points.

It was essential to learn what was said during the first few phone conversations with his clients to get the phrases they used to describe their problems and to know what drove them to take action.

This essential information gathering would provide insight into search patterns, prospect behavior, and sales cycle. Then, I could cross-reference data with the web tools and build an SEO strategy to capture better leads for him.

Rob said that his current SEO company never asked questions like these.

Hmmm….top-level injury attorneys in big cities do not have quality marketing teams? Noted!

This approach piqued his interest, and he began asking me about ApricotLaw.

“It’s just me,” I said.

Rob paused, “Interesting. Well, I’ve been in contract with FindLaw for a few years, and the website they built doesn’t seem to generate leads. Do you think you can take a look and figure out why?”

[FindLaw is a huge law firm marketing company owned by Thomson Reuters]

I thought to myself…Rip apart a FindLaw website? Ha! Sure.

The website FindLaw built was worse than I had imagined

I wrote up all the mistakes: duplicate content, issues with titles and H tags, links to dead internal pages, missing alt tags, landing pages set to no-index, backlinks from irrelevant sites, bizarre anchors, link farms – crazy stuff.

Rob respectfully asked if he could send my analysis to his guy at FindLaw.

I thought, Sure. Rob’s cool, and if this helps him, I’m happy.

Then, the SEO team at FindLaw wanted to speak with me

Maybe they want clarification on the document I wrote?? Maybe they’re impressed and want to hire me??

Rob called and conferenced me in with five of the FindLaw SEOs.

Ooofff, the whack-job SEO folks at FindLaw were off-the-chain crazy…It sounded like all five of them were screaming at the same time.

SEO people get weird about this stuff. I’m not sure how they can take any of this personally.

Anyway, I stayed quiet. Rob stayed quiet. And we hung up when they were done barking.

A few minutes later, the phone rang again. It was Rob, and I could tell he was smiling. 🙂

He said, “Let’s have a little friendly competition. Build me a website, and if you can outrank my competition for the phrase “NYC car accident lawyer,” I’ll drop FindLaw, and go with you.”

Oh, okay, it’s time to get crackin’!!!

Partnering with Nick Kringas

The SEO world is a strange one loaded with hacks and scammers.

My email was filled with SEOs either wanting a job or trying to sell me crappy links.

I almost always deleted these emails without opening them, but one popped up with “NYC car accident attorney” in the subject line. It was from Nick.

Nick’s timing was perfect, and there was something about how his email was written – easygoing, so I asked for a meeting at the Bridgeview Diner in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.

Nick is a great guy, a family man. We read many of the same books, spoke the same SEO and marketing language, and were equally excited about the personal injury law vertical.

It felt like a good fit, so we partnered to own and run ApricotLaw together.

Our first goal was to rank Rob’s website. We reached #2 for the niche’s most competitive search term, “NYC car accident lawyer,” in 4 months.

After seeing the results, Rob jumped on board with us, and ApricotLaw got its first personal injury law client.

Now it was my job to grow ApricotLaw.

You couldn’t mess with me

Pick any city in the county and I could name every injury law firm in the top 5 spots of Google, each website’s DA, DR, TF, TTF, number of referring domains, anchor text ratios, traffic numbers, their SEO company, their weaknesses, and how to outrank them.

I shot hundreds of screen capture analysis videos exposing the sloppy SEO of some top-ranking law firm websites.

These videos on YouTube ruffled some feathers, and I got threats from attorneys and SEO companies, but I kept firing away, sharing the truth and providing a roadmap to success, all for free.

The lawyers who wanted solutions to their marketing problems knew I had the answers and called me immediately.

Educate, don’t sell

I never tried to sell our services hard. The door would close the second the attorney sensed a sales pitch, so I just talked shop and shared my knowledge of SEO and their competition.

The conversations were genuinely enjoyable. I was confident about winning in their ultra-competitive market, and it felt good to be the guy providing the solutions.

And although it probably appeared like I was the educator, I, too, learned so much from these conversations because they were jam packed with raw industry intel.

These golden nuggets were used to shape ApricotLaw’s strategies.

At that time, we didn’t have the teams or the processes to handle a bunch of new clients. We didn’t want the focus to be on growth at the expense of retention, so these videos and phone presentations were a free source of Internet marketing information for attorneys – no hassle, no obligation, take all the time you need, soak it all in with zero sales pitch.

Excellent service without a strategy for growth is sure to fail, and we had some internal building to do.

What you plant now, you will harvest later.

Many of those long conversations I had with attorneys were seeds that grew into eager buyers well before we were ready to provide our services.

We had the formula for success for one law firm. Still, we needed to hire and train designers, developers, writers, on-page SEOs, link builders, and social media managers before we would accept payments.

If I learned anything from this phase, the first few hires would set the tone for the entire culture. Hiring subpar talent like we did send us down a long dusty road that ended in the swamp.

And we got pretty muddy at times.

The content was late, on-page SEO and links suffered, sites had technical problems, and our overall communication could have been better.

We were drowning in year one, yet more attorneys lined up to hire us.

Something needed to happen, or we would become just another churn-and-burn SEO company with many complaints.

Slow down, rip it apart, and get it right.

Every component of ApricotLaw needed an overhaul if we were to be scalable and 100% accountable.

We brought in new designers to compete with the best law firm website design agencies and developers that could custom code websites to load in under one second.

We hired a few great writers and implemented an efficient content creation and editing process.

We systematized our on-page SEO and found detailed oriented people to complete the work.

We beefed up our link building strategy to consistently get relevant and authoritative placements.

We hired an HR person to connect all the dots, a COO to manage the department heads, and a Client Success Manager to handle reporting and monthly review calls.

Getting the processes cleaned up and the right people in place was a big job. Now that our house was clean, I could refocus on sales.

Fast company growth

Our teams were strong, and my primary purpose was bringing on one A-lister injury firm from each major city, which required an insane number of SEO analysis presentations and detailed custom proposals.

We signed a Chicago personal injury firm. Their website was hacked-up and old, with 1000+ lousy blog posts and crazy keyword stuffing. We ripped it apart and pushed them up to #1 for “Chicago car accident lawyer.”

We signed a San Diego Injury firm. They had nothing. We took them from a newly registered domain name to #1 for “San Diego car accident lawyer.”

We signed an injury firm from Miami. The guy looked about 14 years old – right out of law school – we ranked his site #1 for “Miami car accident lawyer”.

We had #1 results in ten of the most competitive cities in the country for the most valuable keywords.

We were beating the big personal injury law firms. The firms with huge budgets couldn’t touch us.

When Google launched an update – we were there to adjust – and when other law firms’ rankings tanked, our clients saw even more significant surges in traffic and leads.

We were tearing the injury market to pieces, winning in every major city, and the word was spreading – ApricotLaw was the company you wanted in your corner.

The floodgates were open, new clients poured in, and we had the systems and people to get the work done.

We had happy employees, clients, and profits.

But something was missing.

Business gurus write books pushing you to put systems in place and delegate the day-to-day, so you can replace yourself and be free.

They say the pinnacle of success is owning a business that runs perfectly without you.

For me, building the ApricotLaw processes and strategy was thrilling. The work kept me up late at night, and I couldn’t wait to get up and grab the reins again early in the morning.

Now that I could step away, the business started to feel like a possession that didn’t need me.

The happiness of reaching this destination was fleeting. The real excitement was in the challenge and constant forward motion of the journey itself.

In other words, I always need a creative project in my hands.

It’s time for me to go.

That Zoom meeting when I announced to the company I was leaving was surreal. Everyone was on mute, so there was dead silence. Not even crickets. It felt like bombing at The Improv.

Seriously, it was a bittersweet departure, and I’ll miss everyone, the funny messages, the big wins, and the BOOOMMMMs. I love the Apricots and stay in close contact with some of them.

They’re great people who do fine work, and I’m incredibly grateful for our time together.

What’s my next journey?

15+ years of SEO made clear three things:

    1. The biggest marketing problem businesses have is the lack of high-quality backlinks
    2. Most SEO companies try to do everything and end up failing at link building
    3. A company that focuses only on providing superior link-building will create wildly successful customer

I’ve got one more business in me; it’s UppercutSEO: For digital agencies and business owners who want top-shelf, relevant backlinks, quickly and guaranteed.

I’m investing my time, energy, and money into making it perfect. We already have the very best people, and we’re having a blast knocking it out of the park.

Thanks for reading.

Tom

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