Going It Alone – Should You Become An Independent PPC Operator?

By Kirk Williams | @PPCKirk | Owner of ZATO

I’m not sure if I’ve ever run across an article on this topic, but I have run across many people interested in it.


Being independent has a draw on everyone. Who doesn’t want to live life their way, make their own hours, be limited only by their destiny? (Well, in reality there are far more limitations than destiny, but this is the grass-is-greener mentality we all carry, right?)

cliff diving is like independent ppc
Being independent is like going cliff-diving. The experience and thrill makes us all long to go for it, but the realistic concern for leaving the safety of firm ground and potentially dashing ourselves on the rocks below entices many to back away from the cliff.

Of course, the analogy falls apart here because there are many more variables in leaping out of a solid job and into the unknown in PPC than there are in cliff diving. Perhaps it’s more like cliff diving in a dangerous tidal area. Timing & technique is essential in this regard.


Enough about cliff-diving. You are likely still reading because this is an area that brings you curiosity. You have considered taking the leap but are trying to determine whether there are rocks at the bottom to meet you, or whether the deep, calm, cool ocean of riches awaits. After all, that’s the rub when you’re at this point isn’t it? Will you end up like Humpty Dumpty or Scrooge McDuck?


scrooge mcduck or humpty dumpty after going independent ppc


My goal in this post is to provide several tips and insights to help you in thinking through the timing and practicality of leaving your secure job and going independent in the wild world of PPC.


Who Am I To Speak On This?


Well, no one really. Take what I say with a grain of salt since my experiences and circumstances will differ from your own and it’s not like I have a decade of success behind me. I began collecting clients in the Summer of 2011 and then took the 100% independent leap in November 2012. It’s been somewhat of a rollercoaster and I’ve had tons of help from others so this is my attempt to help you think through some of these things as you weigh these questions yourself.


8 Questions to Ask Yourself When Considering PPC Independence


  1. “Am I Thinking Realistically About This?”
  2. “Why Do I Want To Do This?”
  3. “Is Now The Best Time To Take This Leap?”
  4. “What Do I Want To Accomplish With This?”
  5. “Do I Have Other Business Skills Besides PPC?”
  6. “Can I Afford To Do This Right Now?”
  7. “How Will This Impact Others In My Life?”
  8. “Who Can I Lean On For Referrals And Advice?”

Question #1 – Reality – “Am I Thinking Realistically About This?”


Being independent is awesome. I get to work when I want to. I work as hard as I want to. All decisions for the success or failure of my business is on me. If I make a wrong comment in a sale and lose the prospect it’s nobody’s fault but my own. If I implement a good change that increases revenue for a client, it is personally rewarding. When you land that big client, nobody takes a cut. It’s all yours. Congratulations, you just gave yourself a 25% raise. It is enriching and rewarding and freeing.


Being independent is freaking hard. Work never turns off. There is nobody to manage your accounts or answer that email for you. “Sometimes you just need to go on vacation and shut off work.” Well, you can’t do that when there is no one to manage it in the meantime! Got the sniffles today? Welp, get to work anyway because if you don’t finish that report the client is waiting on, it won’t get done. I’ve had to get out of bed before to shut off an account hitting a budget cap. It is tempting to put too little and too much into work/family/everything else.


There is nobody to turn to for brainstorming and second opinions on private data. Nobody catches the mistakes you make, or nobody sees and is impressed by the awesome script edit you made that worked (YAAAAYYY… *looks around empty room, sighs, goes back to work*).


You are the minion that must make the change in the account itself when an issue arises, and you are the boss that is responsible for it and has to explain to the client what happened.


You are 100% commission-based. There is no “security” of a bigger agency if you lose a sizable client, it just means you lose half your income.


I’m not trying to talk you in or out here. I’m trying to make sure you’re thinking realistically about what it really entails to be independent. It is rewarding and demanding! Very little in life is free and being independent doesn’t mean you won’t work. Don’t confuse “independent” with “trust-fund baby”.

Question #2 – Motivation – “Why Do I Want To Do This?”

motivations in ppc
This is more of an internal question and one I won’t spend much time on, but I think it is worth including. A key part of any important decision is motivation. That is no different in this instance.


Why do you want to go on your own? Are you hoping to increase your job flexibility? Do you want to work from home? Do you see yourself turning things into a business empire if you could only be at the wheel?


In thinking through these questions, it might be good to ask yourself whether going independent is the only answer for you, or if a simple job change is the way to go. Are there other job positions that will allow you to do some or all of these things motivating you to seek out independent work? Sometimes when we go internal we begin to get direction on a question like this.


Or, sometimes it doesn’t help at all… so keep reading.

Question #3 – Timing – “Is Now The Best Time To Take This Leap?”

ppc timing is everything
Like in music and comedy, timing in this decision is everything.


This goes hand in hand with a lot of these other questions. Are you at a place where it makes sense financially? Do you have time now to handle all of the other business aspects as well as keep up with normal account management? Are you currently focused on something like school or a family emergency that will distract you from building a business?


The answer is easier if some outside influence is forcing you into a decision, you’ve just been put on notice that you are part of the downsizing effort, etc. No one can answer this question for you, but what is your life like and can you afford to make the change now? If the answer is “no”, that doesn’t mean it is “never.” Use this as a goal to motivate yourself to go independent in 6 months, or 2 years, or whenever.


When I was looking into this decision, I had multiple things at play and they all pointed in one direction… go independent. I didn’t want to, but frankly, the timing just made sense. Housing, work, school, church, family, life in general all converged in the right place at the right time in a way that worked. It might not be as clear for you, but it is a huge part of the discussion.


What is your current client load?


A significant part of the timing conversation is the number of clients you currently have. If you are considering this jump, you have likely done what I did. You picked up a few clients on the side and are trying to determine if you can swing this full-time.


How confident are you that these clients are satisfied and you are in a stable place to make the switch? Or do you have the opportunity to pick up a big client but that would mean you can’t do both your current job and all of your clients? That was part of my decision when it was time, I had the chance to take on a large new client and I had to make the decision to remain with my current job and say “no” to that prospect, or take the leap, say “yes” and quit my other job. I chose the latter!

Question #4 – Goals – “What Do I Want To Accomplish With This?”

ppc goals


One last “meta-like” question, but I think it’s important in your decision. What are you hoping to accomplish going independent that would facilitate a life-changing decision? If your goal is “to make a lot of money” well, that’s probably not a great reason since you can do that working for someone else.


Motivation and goals are similar, but motivation is internal and what drives you to your goals. Your goal is something you aim for.


I’m not sure if I ever sat down and thought about what I wanted to achieve, but I can say that a big part of my goal system was entrepreneurial as well as freedom focused. What I mean by that is, I have all of these business ideas and I really wanted to give them a good go. I had a strong desire to build and maintain a successful business and had what I considered were great ideas and it is harder to do that when you are working for someone. I had the goal of being the one to decide what to do in an organization. Honestly, maybe that’s kind of a dumb goal because at some level we all have to learn to submit to the leadership of others.


I also had the goal of having the freedom to choose my schedule so I could spend time where I wanted, when I wanted.


In thinking through this decision, write down what you are hoping to accomplish by going independent. This may or may not be helpful to you, but can often help be part of the bigger puzzle of clarity.

Question #5 – Business Experience – “Do I Have Other Business Skills Besides PPC?”

busy ppc


Now for some practical straight-talk. Independent PPC is so much more than PPC. It doesn’t matter if you can pivot the flim-flam out of your tables, if you can’t sell you won’t last.


How is that detailed knowledge of AdWords’ newest DSA announcement going to get your quarterly tax payment out on time?


Someone who excels (ha!) at diving deep into spreadsheets, but has trouble keeping calendar appointments may want to consider not making the switch.


When you are the Paid Search person in the office, you handle the Paid Search stuff. You know, you probably dabble in a little CRO and maybe some CSE feed management, but that’s pretty much it. You do PPC.


Unless you are starting with some serious money (in which case, you probably don’t care about this post) then when you go independent it’s just you. You’re it.
You are:


  • CEO
  • CFO
  • CTO
  • CMO
  • PPC account manager
  • PPC analyst
  • code placement specialist
  • CRO expert
  • landing page expert
  • ad copy specialist
  • IT specialist
  • accountant
  • office furniture shopper
  • vision setter
  • brand evangelist
  • coffee maker
  • tax specialist (even if you have one hired like me, you still have to get everything ready)
  • sales person
  • bill collections (I’m still waiting on an 8 month old bill from a former client)
  • social media expert
  • web designer (unless you have money to pony up for a website)
  • content developer
  • receptionist
  • customer service rep


Clearly just “being really good at PPC” isn’t enough to cut it when breaking out on your own. On the other hand, there is a level of learning involved in everything. Who cares if you’ve never done some of those things, life is an adventure, give it a try!


My objective here isn’t to dissuade someone from going independent, it’s to warn those jumping in with little or no thought to count the cost before potentially hurting themselves and others around them.


If you think there are areas that you need to grow, consider finding a mentor or taking a class specifically in those areas. Set a goal of growing in those areas and saving, and then jumping out on your own after that.


Whatever you do, get better at sales!


A final important thing to note in this section is the importance of being a good sales person. I have come to see this as an essential part of PPC independence. If you can’t sell, you won’t survive, end of discussion!


I never thought I would like selling because I’m an introvert. This has become one of the parts of the job I enjoy the most. The more I have done it, the more I have learned that you don’t have to be that crazy Type A, ramrod salesperson (that nobody likes anyway) to sell. Just be yourself, be honest, and have fun. I have written 2 posts on selling PPC if you are interested to get my opinion on that:


Selling PPC: Stop Pushing, Start Listening
Why the Case Study Needs to Die When Selling PPC

Question #6 – Finances – “Can I Afford To Do This Right Now?”

afford to go independent in ppc


This is the fastest way to get a quick answer to whether this is the right time for you to go independent. Where are you financially?


Sit down with a pen and paper and count up your expenses. If you really want this badly, cut every non-essential out of your life and count that up. Now count up the client income you have right now. Perhaps if you are about to get a new prospect and this is part of the timing question, count that income up as well. Are you still in the black? If not, you may want to reconsider whether this is a good time for you since you won’t be able to pay your basic life expenses.


On the other hand, even if you are in the black now, what happens if you lose one client? What is your back up plan? If you are considering a switch now, the biggest thing I can suggest is to begin saving up. Consider having 3 months worth of expenses saved up in case you lose a big client(s). That way you can focus on selling for that 3 months, or getting a new job!


The other factor to consider in the financial aspect, is the number of things you don’t realize you will need to cover once you are out from under the umbrella of an employer. It’s a lot like buying your house after you have been renting. “I need to mow the lawn… I guess I have to buy a lawn mower now!”


Here are just a few things that will accrue additional expenses that your employer probably currently covers for you:


  • office chair
  • desk
  • computer
  • printer
  • office supplies (pens, stapler, etc)
  • software (Microsoft Office, bid management, Spotify!)
  • a room in your house, or office to rent
  • internet access
  • better modem, router
  • business insurance
  • HEALTH INSURANCE (don’t forget about this one, you’ll be shocked how much your employer actually covers for you)
  • dental insurance
  • vacation pay
  • sick pay (remember, if you don’t work for your clients, no one does!)
  • retirement matching options
  • snacks!!!!
  • coffee!!!!!!!!!


The thing to remember when you go independent is that you pay for everything. It doesn’t mean you can’t do it, but don’t walk into it blindfolded! To be perfectly honest, the only way I survived was with family help. There was a point in there a couple of years ago when I was ready to contact some of the agencies I knew and ask for a job. The only thing that kept us afloat was my in-laws providing a place in the basement for us to stay. If we hadn’t had that place to lay our heads, I would have been looking for work.


The financial aspect of this decision is hugely important.

Question #7 – Personal/Family Circumstances – “How Will This Impact Others In My Life?”

old family portrait in ppc


This involves doing pesky grown-up things like pondering how our decisions will impact those around us.


If you are single, have cheap rent, and don’t really have anyone that will be impacted by a major life change then the decision is easier. If you have 17 children and your disabled parents living with you, then perhaps going with something risky is not the best decision for you at this time with so many people dependent upon your income. I’m not trying to tell you what to do, just trying to use a humorous example to make note of the fact that going independent is a “riskier” venture in many ways for the family person.


It is one thing to lose a client and have to dip into savings as a person with not a whole lot of other responsibilities. It is quite another to ponder losing a client and having your family be in danger of losing your house where your current stable job may provide more security at this time.

Question #8 – Business Connections – “Who Can I Lean On For Referrals And Advice?”

ppc networking


Finally, the last question I think you should ask yourself when considering the switch, is how much of a network do you have built out? Let me be really, really clear here.


By “network” I do NOT mean, “list of random people you can spam” with emails about your “new adventure” and how they have the opportunity to get on board.


I mean, who can you go to for business advice? Who can you go to for sales advice? Who can you go to for PPC campaign advice?


I have 3 suggestions for types of networks that I have tried to build out.


(1) PPC Professionals – Find people who can be your missing office mates. People who will geek out about search query reports with you. This is basically #PPCChat for me. But it is more than just showing up on Tuesdays and talking through the chat. I have tried to get know many of these awesome people personally and learn deeply from them. Because of this I have my first conference speaking opportunities coming up and more than one client prospect as a referral. Again, I would warn you to not exploit this community (frankly, they’ll just call you out on it). Get into the community, put your time in, get to know them and learn from them.


Another segment of this network is opportunities for freelancing. Many agencies offer freelancing opportunities, get to know them and fill empty client spots with freelancing gigs. This will also help you learn!


(2) Business Partnerships – Find people whose businesses go hand in hand with PPC, but who don’t do PPC. Try to do this with online people as well as local people. One way I do this is by volunteering as a board member for our local Advertising and Marketing Club here in Billings. Don’t just look for immediate ROI from these people. Invest in long-term relationships, referrals will eventually come but more than this, you will be surprised how valuable these relationships are in many other areas as well.


(3) Smart People – This can be living or dead people. Be willing to read!! I have found immense professional value in great books like How to Win Friends and Influence People, The 7 Habits of Highly Effectual People, and the Book of Proverbs.


In terms of people in your daily life, find ones who have a lot of common sense and find out why. Not all of your uncles are crazy. Get to know them and learn how they built their part building business. The best sales tips I have picked up for selling PPC have been from my Insurance-Selling Father-in-Law. Call up local business owners and offer to take them to lunch to learn how they manage their office or day (don’t you dare try to sell to them! This is not a trap, it’s you wanting to learn from them).


It’s difficult to put into words, but I’ll try: When you invest yourself into relationships, referrals come. They really do, and they are usually great quality referrals. Your goal isn’t to use people to get a referral, but it is amazing how people are willing to come TO you to ask about your services when you are willing to learn from them and willing to help them in completely unrelated areas.




To close, I should probably say something encouraging. If I sound like I’m trying to dissuade you from going independent, realize that’s not it at all… unless you haven’t thought through any of those questions. The funny thing is, that a number of those questions are things I screwed up in the beginning myself. I had to learn them the hard way or from the good example of others. So, take heart knowing that it is possible to go independent and survive (well at least for a few years, maybe my business will implode next year and I’ll have come looking for a job at your company). If I can do it, so can you!


Does this make sense for you at this point? Heck, give it a try! Be brave and grab life by the horns!


Not as interested? Nothing wrong with that at all, there are people FAR more successful than me who work “for” someone else. It’s not something to be ashamed of by any stretch.


Interested but not quite ready? No problem, save and figure out a strategy to make it happen. Start forming relationships now before you’re ready to get on your own. Take on a client or two and see if you like all the other aspects of business life. Make the sacrifices needed to make your dream happen.


I hope these tips were helpful. Please share some of your best advice on going independent (or not going!) in the comments below, or on Twitter!