‘Don’t you think that’s embarrassing?’: Why this multi-millionaire wants you to know he was homeless


Founder of SEO agency StudioHawk and 25-year-old multi-millionaire Harry Sanders wants to use his rising profile in the business world to help homeless youth. Why? He was one.
StudiHawk’s Harry Sanders. | Image: Supplied

Harry Sanders could never have expected he’d end up homeless.

He got his very first job in digital marketing at just 14 years old. 

Sanders had been mucking around with SEO (search engine optimisation) to help his dad’s business in Melbourne. Along the way, he created a small travel website. And one day, Sanders was contacted by an agency that wanted to buy it from him.

So, in the first business move of Sanders’ young life, he decided to make the most of the opportunity. He came up with what he considered to be an outrageously expensive price, imagining he would negotiate downwards from there.

He confidently told the agency his website would be $2000. Thinking they would never agree, Sanders threw in the kitchen sink, offering to train the team and do whatever else they might need while they picked up the website.

The agency, to Sanders’ surprise, agreed happily.

So he showed up at their door to conduct training, wearing one of his dad’s cheap suits (that was much too big for him).

And the agency realised they’d been conducting business with a child.

Sanders will never forget the look on their faces – but they let him go ahead with the training anyway. His knack for digital marketing soon became clear. Two weeks after the training concluded, the agency rang Sanders to ask him if his school had a work experience program. Would his school let him work one day a week at the agency, as work experience?

“Yep! We get Wednesdays off for work experience,” Sanders told them.

He was lying of course – but his career in SEO had officially begun.

Unfortunately for Sanders, his success story wasn’t a straight line up from there.

His parents had been divorced since he was young, and Sanders lived with his dad. At 17, his father’s partner had decided that the teenager was “baggage” and kicked him out with nowhere to go.

“I mostly just felt angry, confused, and lost”, Sanders says. “And then I think the reality kicked in … you realise, ‘Wow! Okay, holy shit. I’m in a really bad situation here.’”

He had left the digital marketing agency shortly before being kicked out, on “not the best terms”. 

He applied for jobs month after month, in entry-level positions at places like McDonald’s. But without an address to give potential employers, his applications were unsuccessful.

It wasn’t until a social worker encouraged him to follow his passion for SEO that he dived back into a business he had started just before becoming homeless. Unlike other digital marketing agencies, it exclusively focused on providing SEO services.

Building an empire

Eight years later that business is StudioHawk. Earning around $10 million a year, winning numerous awards, and providing services to approximately 400 companies internationally.

How does a kid with relatively no business experience handle being at the helm of such a rapidly growing company? 

Sanders’s success indicates the importance of having a clear vision for your business.

His experience in a digital marketing agency had taught him exactly what he didn’t want. When you try to do too many things, you don’t do anything well, which leads to unhappy clients and unhappy staff.

He was determined that StudioHawk would be SEO only – something that was practically unheard of in 2015.

“I had really naïve views, but they turned out to actually work because people were really annoyed with SEO at the time, and still are.”

But, unlike most, Sanders’ has a unique love affair with search engine optimisation – despite its reputation as a frustrating mystery, he insists that SEO is a creative pursuit, more about building trust and longevity for a business than hacking any sort of secret system.

Harry and Basil Sanders. Image: Supplied

In case any business owners were wondering, Sanders says SEO success is down to embracing experimentation and implementing small, incremental improvements over a long period. 

“It really comes down to having a well-structured site that has a lot of external authority, and has good trust and experience behind it,” Sanders says.

His passion for the craft of SEO is more than obvious, but he ultimately attributes his success to “a lot of learning”.

“I describe myself as a sponge. There is nobody I don’t think I can learn something from,” Sanders says.

Business-wise, Sanders’s top priority is now ensuring this foundational success is sustainable.

He estimates that StudioHawk turns down more than 60% of the projects that come its way – a number that would seem mind-boggling to some business owners.

But Sanders would rather not do something than do it poorly. “We don’t take on work that we can’t deliver a meaningful result on,” he tells Forbes Australia.

“I think I think a lot of people are obsessed with revenue and growth, but they’re not creating long-term, sustainable businesses.”

So far, this ethos has paid off, with 97% of StudioHawk’s earnings coming from recurring revenue, making them a business with a very low churn.

Although it began in Australia, the business expanded internationally almost three years ago. 

It now has an office and team of 10 in London, which Sanders describes as ‘a capital in the world of SEO’. 

StudioHawk made almost $10 million in revenue last financial year, with 31% year-on-year growth. The UK team was forecast to double in size this year.

Now StudioHawk is setting its sights on the US. It’s a tricky market in America but holds the potential for a lot of growth, and Sanders is heading to the States soon to explore options for expansion.

But the growing success of his SEO business isn’t enough for Sanders. He is determined to give back – working closely with youth homelessness charity the Lighthouse Foundation to provide opportunities for disadvantaged youths.

“The reason why I share that is to show people it isn’t embarrassing. It’s not something to be ashamed of, like, this is something that happened to me.”

Harry Sanders

While his personal experience of homelessness informs his passion for the matter, the statistics speak for themselves.

According to a statement from the Andrews Labor government earlier this year, more than 16% of people experiencing homelessness in Victoria are aged between 15 and 24, and Sanders believes most people don’t realise the extent of the problem.

Now, as a corporate partner of the foundation, StudioHawk has committed to donate $190,000 over the next three years to help eradicate youth homelessness. 

Sanders is using his success to help young people experiencing homelessness. Image: Supplied

Sanders takes every opportunity to speak openly about his homeless experiences. Not only to raise awareness but also to ease the shame that many people experiencing homelessness feel.

“A lot of people when I first started talking about my experiences would say to me, ‘Don’t you think that’s embarrassing? Why would you share that?'”, Sanders says.

“But the reason why I share that is to show people it isn’t embarrassing. It’s not something to be ashamed of, like, this is something that happened to me.”

Expansion into the US imminent, and business is continuing to grow considerably. So what does the next page look like in this real-life rags-to-riches story?

Sanders says he wants “to help more homeless people. I want to abolish or at least minimize as much as I can youth homelessness. I want to give people opportunities that haven’t been provided them. And I want to do that for the rest of my life.”

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