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Warning! Protect your ideas when interviewing with a company

stealing your ideas

A fictional, yet all to real example of industry brain rape.

(PS this show rocks)

Does this video seem familiar? Have you ever gone in to an interview with a prospective company fully prepped and ready to knock their socks off? 

Chances are that if you have, you had confidence going into the meeting.  You prepared for this meeting.  You practiced your answers in a way where you could relate specific examples from your past work experience.  You feel good and ready to answer anything they can possibly throw at you.  That's great, and I do recommend always going into an interview with a positive mental attitude (PMA).

However, be careful what you share with these companies because sometimes they are not actually looking to hire, instead they are looking to poach your knowledge and get some consulting work done for free

Sounds a bit shady right? Well, it does happen... a lot.  This method of obtaining free knowledge from industry experts is nothing new as companies have been doing this for quite some time now in all sorts of industries, and not just in SEO. 

Speaking to my father, a retired engineer of nearly 40 years, he told me this was a constant issue when approaching new companies in need of his help. He was a consultant who worked contract for many large organizations, so this was a common reoccurrence for him.

After being involved with SEO and Marketing for quite some time now, I can tell you this is a real issue for us small guys doing contract work.  

A typical scenario where a company is only interested in your knowledge:

A company representative reaches out via social media, asking if anyone in their network knows an SEO expert to help their company. 

They get a bunch of messages answering the company rep recommending so and so.

That company rep now has a list of people who do SEO, and who are probably hungry for work.  This industry is tough, competitive, and is not regulated.  We are basically mercenaries for hire, and the company probably knows this.

The company rep contacts each SEO individually and makes it seem like a great opportunity, but they are facing a problem and this is where the SEO expert comes in. 

Company: Hey Steven, nice to meet you.  Our company is a leader in XYZ, but we are facing a problem with our SEO rankings.  Here is a detailed scenario of the problem, do you think you can help?

Steven: Sure! Let me take a look.

Company: Great! If possible, can you submit your proposal within the next couple days? We are looking to hire ASAP!

Steven: No problem, I can submit something to you by the end of the day.

This is a likely conversation that you'll have.  The company has a "problem" that needs fixing, and they are looking to hire someone ASAP in order to fix the issue, but first they must see their proposal to make sure the SEO is actually qualified. 

Another scenario in which the employer has you audit one of their clients:

This happened to me when I first branched out and started the Sherpas, but I quickly learned my lesson after.  I was contacted by a marketing agency looking for an "in-house SEO expert" that could help with their existing client base. They wanted an in person interview which is normal, but the interview itself was not.

True story:

Let me first start off by saying that I went to this interview because the company seemed interesting, the location was good, I liked their website, and the idea of some more stable pay is always appealing - especially in the initial stages of launching your company and money is tight.

Right from the start, there were red flags which I was able to identify, but ignored regardless when it came to this company looking to "hire me".  The first red flag being the e-mail etiquette from the employer.  This may not seem like a big deal, but when a CEO of a company has trouble forming proper written sentences and straight up ignores parts of your corresponding e-mails, it seems rather fishy.  

I had been on vacation at the time when first contact was made, but received an e-mail from the CEO advising he was interested in my background, but that I needed to complete the mandatory aptitude test.  Eager at the opportunity, I completed the test (1 hour) and notified the CEO I had finished.  Almost immediately, he responded asking if I could do a quick phone interview.  I told him I was on vacation in a different time zone, but I could accommodate him and that we could speak at 10 AM the next day.

He failed to call or e-mail me at 10 AM the next morning, so I sent an e-mail around 10:30 asking him if the call would still be on. He responded later and stated he got tied up, and asked if I could do 12 PM instead.

I thought about this, and decided this was a bit unprofessional considering I am on vacation, and yet I made time to speak and he didn't uphold his end of the arrangement.

I replied and asked if we could speak the following Monday at 10 AM.  It was Saturday before, and I had a super busy day ahead of me and I couldn't really make the time. I explained this, but he doesn't respond until 12:01  and says "calling u soon"

I am scratching my head thinking, "Did this jackass not read my e-mail? Or did he not care?" Either way, that's a major red flag.

He did call me eventually at 12:25, apologized, explained he had been in meetings all day (as I hear a small child screaming in the background) and that they were in need of hiring someone urgently.  He went on to say he was impressed with my background, yada yada yada, and that he'd love to meet in person on Monday morning to do the "final assessment." 

He says before he hangs up that he'll send me a meeting invite for the interview.  Sunday morning, right before my flight back to Toronto, I receive an e-mail from him asking me for a list of references, a portfolio of items I've worked on, and any case studies I've performed ASAP because he needs it "urgently" as he is making his decision soon on the candidate. 

I respond telling him that I am in the airport, and as per our previous conversation, I'd bring all those items the following day during our schedule in-person interview.  I also drop in a line at the end of the e-mail that I never received the meeting invite.

He responds in minutes saying, "check your spam mail."  OK - I get why he'd say that, but I obviously did check it first before mentioning it to him.

Next day on 3 hours sleep, I show up to the office early; he arrives 20 minutes late.  

The office looked as if they had just moved in.  It was located in a small office small in a larger building complex.  The company logo and mantra were pasted on one of the white stained walls.  

After he arrives, he apologizes blah blah blah.  Sits me down in his office, asks me a handful of basic HR style questions then proceeds to hand me an 8 page test with about 25 questions on it related to SEO.

This was annoying because

A) I dislike tests - but understand it is required in certain interview situations.
B) The test was really long... it had about 25 questions, and most of the questions asked for 3-5 examples. 
C) If he had questions, why not just ask me face to face? These are not math formulas and explaining SEO is often better through conversation rather than scribbling down some notes on a piece of paper.

I complete mostly everything, but some questions were command line prompts and syntax for code which I didn't know off the top of my head (things I could easily Google). 

He then asks me to open my laptop so he can e-mail me a document to sign.  He goes on to say the next part of the test will be to look at a website of one their existing clients and provide some analysis.  Therefore, I had to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement. Without really thinking or reading the document, I signed it and proceeded with the interview.

He wanted a keyword dump broken down into categories in a file format.  Next, he wanted me to audit the on-page SEO and provide 3 possible improvements.

I completed the task in about an 45 min and broke the keyword list down into categories as requested. I also provided a list of suggested keywords to target, and a list of competitors for each keyword.

As for the three site improvements he wanted, I provided five instead.  Good ones too.

After the final test was done, we sat down and talked for about 20-30 minutes about the industry, his previous business, where he saw the current company going, etc etc.  In all honesty, he didn't seem like a bad guy.

At the end of the interview (3 hours total), I felt pretty good about myself.  I thought I gave a solid effort and I was confident the suggestions I provided were beneficial.  I also shared with him a couple theories I had that were yet to be proven (stupid me).  

When I got home later that day it dawned on me. What if this guy just brain raped me and stole my ideas for his client? I never really read the NDA, so I didn't know what the hell I signed. 

This got me thinking, there were so many red flags leading up to and during the interview. The NDA, the audit, his basic lack of knowledge about SEO (I uncovered this speaking to him - He admit he's not an SEO guy, more of a sales person).  All these clues pointed towards one thing, the purpose of the interview was to take my ideas, claim them as their own, and get it done for free.

A few days later, the CEO e-mails me back to discuss further about my SEO ideas, about my experience operating various hosting configurations, and asks for a Blueprint of my link building framework.  

At this point, I know what he's trying to do, so I tell him my framework is private, but he could have access to it if I were to be hired by his company.  I guess he didn't like this response, so he told me they are still evaluating candidates and it could be a while longer, so I need to separate myself from the other batch by providing my framework to prove my knowledge (I though that's what the insanely long SEO test was for?). 

I eventually told the CEO I was not interested in working for their company after about 2 weeks of him trying to pry more and more information out of me. 

Sure enough, a few days later I check their client's website and my ideas I gave him were implemented in plain sight.  

Yes, this situation was annoying and I probably wasted a good 8-10 hours on this guy, but at the end of the day it did open my eyes to the possibility that certain companies who interview you, are only interested in stealing your ideas.

So what do you do if you think a company is solely after your ideas, and not actually interested in hiring you?

There are a few options.  It depends on what they ask of you, but be careful when giving away your proposal on how you can help them, or their clients.

Option A:

Do your very best on the proposal and send them something of value which can help their situation. 

I would never advocate against this, because hard work does pay off, but sometimes that hard work goes unrewarded if they like your ideas and decide to implement them without hiring you.

The problem with this approach, while being honest and upfront, is that in my experience you can get taken advantage of. There have been times where I spend multiple hours compiling a complete proposal and pitch ideas that are out of the box, but I'm told the contract went to another agency. Sure enough, after checking their website shortly after, my ideas were implemented with no credit going to myself.  

Of course I cannot prove it was because of me, because technically any other agency or SEO expert could have had the same ideas, but it's unlikely when 5 out of 5 solutions you provide were enforced shortly after your proposal went in.

Option B:

Work on a more vague proposal by identifying key problem areas, or areas to improve on.  Illustrate you clearly understand the issues and have experience dealing with them, but don't give them too much information.

Give past examples of companies you've helped who were in a similar situation, but be vague about the tactics you used.

The problem with this option, is that if you're a newer company, you may not have past examples of clients in a similar situation.  Also, being vague can bite you in the butt because you might come off as inexperienced, or not as interested in the project because you provided less information/detail within your proposal.

Option C:

Have the company sign a purchase order agreement for a discounted audit fee.

If you already suspect the company looking to hire is only out for their best interest, and wants to steal your knowledge, this isn't a bad tactic.  You can tell them that to protect your own interest, you can provide them an in-depth audit, but will charge them a discounted audit fee.  Mention the word discount to make it a bit more enticing.  

The problem with this option is that the company might reject your offer right on the spot.  They might come back and say it's not worth their time, and they have plenty of other candidates lined up to fulfil they request.  This may be true, or they might be bluffing, but if you decide to use this tactic, hold strong to your principles and do not compromise even if they try to bluff you out.

If the company agrees to your purchase order, then you can safely assume their intent is sincere, and you might get a contract out of the proposal, and an audit fee on top of it!

Option D) 

Have them sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement before providing them with any information.  

It's usually the opposite in many cases, as a potential employer might ask you to sign an NDA before revealing information about their company and clients.  You can actually switch it up on them, and request them to sign an NDA before you provide them with that proposal.  

This is really only a good idea if you have unique ideas specific to your own company.  For example, a magic formula for creating content, or a custom framework you have developed for link building.  It doesn't really make sense if you're pitching them standard ideas based off things they can easily Google. 

The problem with this approach is that again, it might scare them off.  However, if a company is truly interested in hiring you, it shouldn't be a problem.

Which option is the best?

It really depends on your situation, but I personally like Option D.  It gives you a professional vibe, while peaking the companies interest in you by creating a bit of a mystery.  If they aren't a serious company and only looking for your ideas, you can weed them out right away.

At the end of the day, this is a risky tactic for business owners.  Not saying I would ever do this, but pissing off SEO experts can actually come back to haunt you.  I could easily write a bunch of scathing reviews on various review sites trashing them, or I could spend a few bucks and do negative SEO on their site and send 10,000 spam links at them.  

Again, this is not something I would ever actually do, but I can't speak for everyone else.  It's a risky play they are taking. 

Just remember, if you have a skill in any industry and are passionate about the subject, you may reveal too much in conversation and give away information you could easily charge money for (I am guilty of this all the time).  You need to decide if you are okay in doing so, or if you should take precautions on how to protect yourself.

Search Engine Sherpas
Search Engine Sherpas
Search Engine Sherpas is a Toronto SEO and Web Design company located within the downtown core.

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