Stephan Spencer, Class of 2008

IB is celebrating 20 years of the 40 Under 40 in 2020, and will be catching up with past recipients to see what they’ve been up to since they were honored. This week features Stephan Spencer, founder, Netconcepts.

What have you accomplished in your professional life/career since your 40 Under 40 selection?

In 2009, the book I co-authored, The Art of SEO, was published by O’Reilly. It is considered “the bible” on SEO and is often used as a textbook in universities.

The following year, I sold my company, Netconcepts, to Covario, following negotiations with two bidders who wanted to buy my business, which put me in a great spot. I immediately jumped into my next business following the sale (after a six-month earnout). I also started working on my next book, Google Power Search, which was published in 2011 by O’Reilly. The third edition is due out this year.

In 2014, Covario (my acquirer) was sold to Dentsu Aegis, a multibillion dollar advertising agency. That was another nice “payday” for me. That same year, I co-authored another O’Reilly book, Social eCommerce.

In 2015, I tapped further into my love of constantly learning by starting two weekly podcasts. On Marketing Speak, I interview top marketers who offer tips and tricks for people to dominate their niche. On Get Yourself Optimized, I dive into secrets that will help you take control of your health, career, intimate relationship, peer group, mindset, and life. I’ve had really big name guests like Tim Ferriss and Dave Asprey on my shows.

In 2016, I stepped out of my comfort zone again and embarked on a TV media tour to share my knowledge on SEO, giving back, and what it meant to be a “geek.” It was quite the whirlwind — a dozen TV appearances over the course of a year.

Over the years I’ve spoken on hundreds of stages and written countless articles, including in Harvard Business Review.

Today, I am working with a select group of clients helping them with their SEO. I’m also working on a self-help book that I hope will impact countless numbers of people across the globe, empowering them to become their best selves.

What accomplishments, milestones, or endeavors have you attained in your personal life since your 40 Under 40 selection?

I began a total physical and mental transformation, spurred by attending Tony Robbins’ Unleash the Power Within and, at that seminar, walking on 2,000-degree hot coals on my bare feet (without burning)! The physical change in my appearance was so massive that you wouldn’t recognize me from what I look like now (check out the before and after photos on under the year 2010 to see!)

The best thing that has happened to me since my 40 Under 40 selection is meeting my now wife, Orion. We met at a Tony Robbins event called Date With Destiny in December 2012. I knew within minutes she was my soul mate. I said “I love you” to her 18 hours after we met, proposed to her nine days later — in a hot air balloon over the Las Vegas desert and I even had the ring; she said no (well, “Not yet”) — and then I re-proposed to her nine months later, and now we have a beautiful 5-month-old baby boy. I’m experiencing the joys of caring for a baby again after many years — my three older daughters are 23, 27, and 28. All are successful young adults in their own right. My oldest is an SEO consultant like her dad! She was even on MSNBC being interviewed about SEO, as you’ll be able to see on her website!

If you were to “do it all over again,” what (if anything) would you do differently throughout your career?

Even though Wisconsin is a work-at-will state, I would have been a more patient and tolerant employer, using progressive discipline and giving staff sufficient time to cure the situation. I have fired people on the spot for exercising very poor judgment, but in retrospect I was too judgmental and black and white. The primary example of this is as follows: Very early in my career (1997 or so), I ended up getting sued by an ex-employee for wrongful dismissal. I had fired him on the spot for talking badly about me to other staff behind my back as soon as I heard about it from other staff. It was a frivolous lawsuit, but I eventually settled because it was cheaper to do that than to win. It ended up being a blessing though because I am much more careful reading contracts and I use progressive discipline. And he called me out of the blue 15 years later to apologize, which was very sweet. I told him he didn’t need to apologize because I got some great gifts out of the experience. We had a powerful 45 minute conversation and then a couple months later we met for dinner and I gave him some Tony Robbins DVDs, which I think really helped him.

How did your 40 Under 40 selection help your career?

Because my clientele by that time was bigger brands (e.g., Zappos, Nordstrom) that were national rather than local businesses, the networking and contacts was really only just for fun and social purposes. It was helpful but only in an indirect way (i.e., meeting cool people who became friends). I will mention something that In Business did that made a HUGE difference for me early in my business was when I was featured on the cover of the magazine when I was just 27. It was the December 1998 issue and a picture is on

What is something that you have a new passion for since the time of your induction — either professionally or personally?

After the induction, I got into personal development and biohacking BIG TIME. Over the last decade, I’ve invested over $1 million into my continuing education and development. I’ve joined masterminds/coached with Tony Robbins, Dr. John Demartini, Alison Armstrong, Taki Moore’s Blackbelt, Genius Network, Strategic Coach, Silver Circle, Abundance 360, Summit, Mary Morrissey, Todd Herman, and Robert Allen. In terms of biohacking — hacking my biology and brain performance — I’ve invested six figures in the “40 Years of Zen” program, stem cell therapy, Amen Clinics SPECT brain scans, Peak Brain Institute, Health Nucleus, and much more.

Based on your experience, do you have any advice for today’s young professionals (under 40)?

Dream big. You can live anywhere. I lived in New Zealand for seven years just on intuition — I hadn’t ever stepped foot in New Zealand, but I applied for permanent residency while living in Madison and I got in! I moved in 1999 and returned in 2007.

Get big brands as clients, even if you have to give away your best stuff to do it. In 2001, we did a very expensive SEO audit for for free in exchange for a testimonial and use of their logo. Having on our client list really catapulted my business forward.

Stand out, be different, be remarkable. Direct mail is not dead. We would send FedEx tubes as a follow-up to the best prospects who came to our booth at trade shows. The tube would always get opened. It contained a pair of wool hunting socks from Cabela’s with a cover letter explaining that we got our client Cabela’s to No. 1 in Google for “wool hunting socks,” “men’s hunting socks,” “hunting socks,” etc. and we thought they’d enjoy a pair. We ended up landing a number of big clients by doing that.

Eat your own dog food. If you’re an SEO expert like I am, it’s important to “walk the talk.” In other words, I need to have high trust and authority scores for my website, a Google knowledge panel, a Wikipedia article, control all the search listings on page 1 for searches for my name, use HTTPS, have lots of content indexed in Google, etc. “Social proof” is very important. Social proof means that you are already vetted by big media outlets, big corporate clients, certifying bodies, industry awards, etc. Display that prominently on your website. Don’t make people dig for it. For instance, “As Seen On” along with a row of logos for ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, AdWeek, Harvard Business Review, etc. is prominently positioned “above the fold” on my home page.

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