Resilience is an entrepreneur’s most valuable trait. It is the driving force that makes them tick and keeps them going against all odds, certainly in the case of Harry Sanders.
As a young teenager he launched a promising tech business, but ran out of cash and ended up living on the streets. His future looked bleak, but somehow he bounced back and at the age of 21 has become one of Australia’s most successful young entrepreneurs, running his own $1.3 million SEO firm StudioHawk.
As a 13-year-old schoolboy Sanders had seen his father’s boat licensing business ruined after signing up for SEO services that were poorly executed and failed to deliver. While his father struggled to keep his business afloat the youngster, who admits he spent all his time on computers, decided to learn everything there was to know about SEO to try and help him.
He says: “I played a lot of games and wanted to be a game developer, but that industry is so hard to break into, and once I started doing SEO I fell in love with it.”
He was learning from scratch, mainly through trial and error, but he found it the perfect combination of logic and creativity and devoted all of his time to it. For a while his efforts failed to produce any results, but gradually his dad’s business phone started to ring again.
Pretty soon the business was booming thanks to Sanders’ new found skill, and not long after that his own phone began to ring. At 14 he got his first job offer, which he was thrilled about, but which had a significant impact on his schooling. “I was basically part time at school, part time at work, and even working on my laptop whenever I got the chance at school,” he says. “I was obsessed with SEO.”
By the age of 16 he was managing a company’s entire search division, with the result that during his final years of school Sanders his attendance was just 30%. In 2015 he left school and feeling emboldened by his success decided to start his own company, StudioHawk. But with limited experience and financial resources he was unprepared for the rigors of running a business.
“I’d spent most of my money on computer parts and sunk the rest into the business before it all went belly up,” he recalls.
His family life was also falling apart. His mom, now single, couldn’t afford to support him, and his business dream had eaten up every dollar he had. At 17 Sanders was homeless, living on the streets of Melbourne, able to couch surf when friends would let him, but feeling like a burden. Tapping into his inner strength and determination he refused to admit defeat. Slowly he started to pick up freelance SEO work.
“I started really hustling to get my first few clients, telling them I would get them to the top for free and they could pay me after,” he says. “I was regularly putting in 100 hour weeks getting them top rankings so that I could get some money coming in.”
After that grueling first year things eventually started to pick up, and as more regular work came in, he hired his first member of staff. The following year he hired eight more, and that, he says, became the turning point both for him and the business.
“Once I had that team of passionate individuals around me things really began to take off as we fed off each other’s passion and enthusiasm,” he says. “I’d gained strength from where I’d come from and never wanting to go back there. Now what gives me strength is my team. I couldn’t do without them.”
Today StudioHawk works with a range of clients, including large firms like Officeworks and The Good Guys, successes that Sanders puts down to recommendations from some of their smaller clients.
“Sometimes recommendations are the only way of getting larger clients,” he says. “Not only does the quality of your work need to be leagues ahead of the rest of industry, but so do your communications.”
Sanders, currently the youngest board member of the AWIA (Australian Web Industry Association), is working on the launch of a dedicated learning center, helping to teach individuals and business owners about SEO and explaining concepts in short, easily digestible videos.
“The biggest problem with our industry is education, or a lack of it,” he says. “If we can better educate our audience it will help them to avoid being taken advantage of by dodgy operators, and unfortunately there are a lot of them in this industry.”
Today the company employs a team of 11 employees and has as annual revenue of $1.3 million. It has yet to seek any external investment and is about to expand globally, with a U.K. branch of StudioHawk due to open in London this summer.
“Our mission is not just to be Australia’s best, but to be the world’s best, and we will have to go to London to do that, as it is the world leader in SEO,” says. Sanders.
His achievements are impressive; his resilience equally so, but he has never lost sight of just how far he has come since his turbulent teenage years. He says: “I’ve hit rock bottom and worked my way back up to the top slowly, and I’ll never forget those who helped me to get there.”