Agency Advantage 24 Podcast: Building a $1M Agency in Less Than a Year Feat. Johnathan Dane
I almost quit three times during our first year in business.
The pressure was too great, the downs were too low, and the money was too invisible.
But most of it was in my head.
You’re reading this because you already know that growing a marketing agency isn’t easy. In fact, you know that growing any business isn’t easy.
But it doesn’t have to be hard, either.
KlientBoost being my second agency, I’ve learned enough to grow fast, to grow slow, and best yet, to grow how I want to grow.
And while this may come across as a #humblebrag type of post, I want to make sure it’s not filled with your usual common-sense stuff that you already know.
This post brings some new things to the table.
Let’s get started.
Fall In Love With The S***
This was the first lesson and also the hardest one I’ve ever had to learn.
There’s enough info out there that’ll make you never want to start an agency, and straight up quit the one you’re already in.
But it’s only tough because you didn’t calibrate yourself to be in love with it.
The beauty of having an agency is that it can truly never die, if you don’t let it.
You have the opportunity to build your agency to become a brand AND yourself to become a thought-leader.
You can do it as a solo-preneur with no clients and nothing but time AND as a 100+ person agency with nothing but money.
Once you realize that the worst can never happen, you kinda stop fearing pointless crap like clients leaving or employees bouncing.
Because your team is having fun and you’re having fun (by growing yourself and your brand) regardless of the size of your agency or the money you’re making.
The growth will eventually happen and the money will eventually come.
Don’t Obsess Over Growth, Obsess Over Progress
You may be obsessed with tactics, but you should care more about solid strategies.
But nothing beats winning slowly and surely by turning silent visitors into repeat visiting fans by holistically caring about your brand, content, and what you’re trying to do.
Here are a few of the many notes we’ve gotten during our first year:
There have been months where we only onboarded one new client and other months where we’ve onboarded ten.
Sometimes there’s no consistency in the agency world, and sometimes you feel like you’re on fire.
So instead of obsessing over growth that you sometimes have no control over, care about the small things you can continually improve and make better.
Here’s a list of the things we once sucked at, but decided to get better at through progress:
- Getting better at content promotion for more social shares
- Increasing the sharing of small wins for our clients
- Building out more and more case studies
- Increasing our organic traffic numbers month over month
- Partnering with more companies to share content
- And the list goes on..
You’ll notice that none of the things mentioned above are sales or direct revenue related. They’re all small progress pieces of the bigger picture that it takes to slowly build a brand and to grow any company.
Here’s a look at how our overall traffic levels have slowly improved (emphasis on the slowly):
It’s the same mentality you have when playing basketball and hitting a shooting dry-spell.
What else can you do to continue to help the team win?
Rebound? Make assists? Take charges?
Great Content Takes Care of 50% of Sales
You already know that content marketing is huge, but you may never have thought of it this way:
When done right, content marketing is the ONLY way that potential clients can learn more about you and what you do. I mean think about it:
Everything you put out will either impress or get a “blah” reaction from the audience you’re trying to attract.
Are you going through the motions or are you truly caring to consistently create amazing stuff?
When done right, content marketing allows you to isolate yourself amongst competition as the only agency your visitors want to work with
When done right, content marketing gives so much value to your potential client that they’re already half-way sold before reaching out to you. You just need to worry about not screwing up the sale.
When done right, content marketing is insane at building relationships of trust that you don’t even realize are being formed.
Content marketing unlocks some HUGE doors.
When you have the care, talent, and design to create great content, a few interesting things can happen. Here’s what happened to us so far:
- 2 webinars with Kissmetrics
- 2 webinars with Invoca
- 1 webinar with Unbounce
- Few other webinar invites
- Numerous podcast invites
- Numerous guest post invites
- Acceptance to speak at Unbounce’s Call To Action Conference in Vancouver
- Acceptance to speak at ConversionXL’s Elite Camp in Estonia
The last two being my favorite, so far 🙂
Did you notice how I said “When done right”?
More on that right now.
Going Through The Motions Will Kill You. Auditing Will Save You.
Remember how I said your agency can never die?
That means your motivation to keep it alive can subdue.
One of the things that I feel like we’ve been extremely good at, is auditing ourselves and our processes.
When I had the time, I was feverishly writing our own content and guest posting. When I got too busy, we started paying our writers $300/post.
And these were good posts too!
We published and we prayed.
Don’t get me wrong. Praying is great, just not in the business world.
Once I saw (aka audited) that no one was actually finding us organically or even converting from our content after three months, I decided to change things up:
- We started paying our writers $600/post to go more in-depth
- I started making the time to write more
- We brought on a person who’s only job is to promote our content
- We brought on a person who’s only job is to help our SEO
- We started caring about link-building
But this was just one example of us auditing and improving.
We did the same thing for our onboarding process, our hand-off, our weekly client reports, and the list keeps growing.
It’s the same opportunity I give our entire team.
I purposely make our team comfortable to trust me (as I should) to truly tell me how they feel, and we’ve had some great heart to hearts (on the business and on the personal side), so that I can audit myself.
The things you can start asking yourself are:
- Are you truly good at sales?
- Is your design department crap?
- Is your retention rate as good as it could be?
The key is to constantly look at yourself in the mirror and really evaluate what you’re doing day to day and how you can improve yourself and your team.
Going through the motions won’t get you where you want to be. Growing takes change.
The Power of Asking is Severely Underestimated
I never went to a single dance during high school.
Not only was I afraid of people looking at me while I would “attempt” to dance, but I never had the courage of asking anyone to go with me. I even turned down girls who would ask me to the Sadie Hawkins dance (a dance where the girls ask the guys to go).
I was shy as crap.
But luckily, things have changed quite a bit since high school.
I’ve now learned that asking for anything has such power that I’m frequently putting it into practice. Even as I’m still getting the occasional “no”, the “yeses” far out-value the fear of getting rejected.
This has helped us be able to guest post, which has helped us get invites to podcasts and webinars, which has raised our own content game, which has increased our chances of getting speaking gigs, which has been our biggest driver of leads and new business.
I now have a long “hit list” of blogs that I want to write for, and plan on asking them by using successful guest posts from the past to use as bait for them to say yes.
Which brings me to the most obvious reason why you should make “asking” a dedicated part of your weekly routine.
It’s been and still is one of the biggest reasons for our success.
By piggy-backing off other companies’ already established audiences, you’re slowly able to build trust and value through the content you’re writing or creating.
It’s the fastest way we’ve been able to get our blog off the ground, especially when using an author bio like this one:
Great. Design. Always. Wins
Here’s the truth: Most marketing agencies suck at marketing themselves.
When there’s no barrier to entry to starting a company other than your brain and a website, then everyone can do it. But not everyone can do it well.
That’s why we always wanted to be different via one distinct aspect:
If you look at our current (and bigger) PPC agency competitors like WordStream, Hanapin, or Seer Interactive (big ups and respect to those peeps), you’ll find that they all look pretty dang similar.
We decided to take an approach towards custom illustration and insanely subtle design choices that immediately give off a more powerful first impression than 99% of all our competitors.
Because the secret sometimes isn’t how long you’ve been in business or how big your team is.
Sometimes, great design evokes trust.
— zeldman (@zeldman) October 24, 2011
Our care for design shows:
- That we care enough to thoroughly make our design as awesome as possible.
- That we care about the user experience through simplicity and anti-fluff.
- That we care about our personality enough to have it shine through our site.
We get a lot of design inspiration from Dribbble, so much that we’re one of the only PPC agencies that have a portfolio to show off our content and landing page designs there (another differentiator we care about).
But it doesn’t just start and end with our website.
Our gifographics, webinars, speaking slides and everything we put out is with the care for great (and funny) design.
It takes more time and effort, but the snowball effect we’re realizing right now shows me that I should put more effort into the things that don’t scale.
E-Myth All Your Processes & Get The F’ Out of the Kitchen
I look great in a lot of hats.
But you and I both know that most agencies aren’t fashion houses (at least not ours). And because of that, hats are lethal.
I used to be afraid of delegating because I truly still think that I’m the best at everything (which leads me to another point of how important being confident is).
But if you turn over the reins to one of your team members, if the worst thing possible happens (someone losing a client), then wouldn’t that in turn be a great learning lesson for them? I think so.
It’s too easy to be attached to every part of your business as you’re growing, and it’s the thing that will most likely prevent your growth as well.
That’s why your team is everything.
Our Lead Designer Josh, has been really great at mapping out everything that the design team needs to be successful, and I was uber fortunate that he decided to do it all by himself, without me asking.
Joel, our Director of PPC, has pushed me to get out of time-sucking situations so I can focus on marketing and sales. And when we get a little too busy, he doesn’t allow me to come back and help.
Everyone on our team steps up.
One of the things we should’ve done from day 1, is write out everything as if we’re a franchise.
Meaning that if we were to clone ourselves to another office in another city, everything we do should be able to be learned through docs, audio, and video, without our interference.
With the goal of, honestly, being able to bring in anyone from the street, teach them PPC, and have them get results.
Once people have everything they need to be successful, allow them to flourish and allow them to fail.
Get the f’ out of the kitchen and use your time in a smarter and more effective way.
Charge Enough To Never Charge Extra
Remember how the headline stated we’re making 60% profit margins (out of the $100k/mo, $60k of that is profit)?
Well it’s kind of not true.
Some months we’re making 50%, and others we’re making 70%.
Which brings me to an important lesson:
Charge Enough To Never Charge Extra
What I mean by that is:
Never à la carte anything. Once a client pays, it’s your responsibility to get results as fast as possible, even if it’s beyond the scope. Your goal is retention, not to squeeze out extra pennies. Think long term, not short term.
Low cash flow will kill you. Charge enough to never run into that problem (aka – raise your prices). It will also help weed out the clients that will be your biggest pain. You know the Pareto Principle, right?
This brings me to another lesson:
Pay For Yourself, As Fast As Possible
We’re lucky enough to be a hybrid PPC/landing page agency that can act relatively quickly to bring a higher ROI.
Once you’ve paid for yourself with the additional results you’re bringing, the nerves and uneasiness disappears (even if you’re great at setting expectations during the sales process).
Clients always appreciate a sense of urgency, and we’ve consistently found new ways to hit the ground running quicker and quicker over time.
Last lesson for this section:
Take Away The Thought of Invoicing
Are you invoicing after the month of work is over with net 30 terms? If so, why?
We used to do that, but now require all clients to pay up front.
Is it because you’re billing a percentage of ad spend?
We used to do that, but realized it’s not really beneficial for either party.
Our sweet spot has been charging a flat fee no matter the ad spend. Because you and I both know that the amount of work doesn’t change much. If it does, then you’re doing it wrong.
And most importantly, every time you send an invoice, you’re giving your client the option and reason to reconsider whether or not the value you bring is worth the money they’re paying.
Making invoicing automatic with Stripe has helped us quickly and easily never worry about late payments.
Last lesson for this section:
Be Careful About The Clients You Choose
It’s almost too easy to say yes to any client that comes knocking on your door when the knocks are few and far inbetween.
And while it’s okay to bring on any business you want as a client, the only thing I can say is: Don’t lower your prices.
It’s a gateway drug to agency death.
Retention Is Nirvana
There’s nothing worse than having a great sales month, but then come to realize that you’ve only replaced lost clients and your revenue hasn’t grown.
When you focus on retaining the clients and customers you already have, then the foundation of your business keeps getting stronger and stronger.
When a customer churns, you lose everything you spent acquiring and supporting them to that point, as well as all of their future revenue
— Lincoln Murphy (@lincolnmurphy) March 25, 2016
Too many people have Shiny Object Syndrome.
Become a Professional Back Scratcher
Giving value before asking for it is so simple, yet everyone screws it up.
When you’re able to turn your fear of networking (something I’m not good at), to the opportunity of “how many people can I help today?” – something magical happens.
Influencers and people higher up on the totem pole get asked for favors to share content or do X or Y all the time.
One of the fastest ways that people have earned my trust and for me to earn theirs, is to be the first one to scratch a back.
This is how I met Aaron Orendorff from IconiContent, who’s now connecting me with more people and more people and mentioning us in some of the articles he frequently writes, after I helped him connect with other people first.
This is how I met Sujan Patel from ContentMarketer.io, who introduced me to Jason Quey who helps with our content promotion and who helped me get access to Slack groups to meet new marketer friends, after we helped him design some landing pages.
The list goes on…
Momentum Crashes Suck – Have a Hiring Pipeline
Don’t hire when you need it. Always hire ahead of time.
Momentum is a real thing in the agency world. And sometimes, it’s impossible to predict.
Once we had a big enough buffer of profit margins, we decided to think long term and hire early.
I now spend more and more time in the HR world by finding new candidates and at least creating relationships, so when the timing is right, they’re ready to join our team.
Because if you really think about it. Hiring is freakin’ hard.
First you have to find candidates = 2-4 weeks
Then you have to interview them = 1-2 weeks
Then you offer them the position = 1 day
Then they have to put in their 2 weeks = 2 weeks
Then they have to be trained = 2 weeks – 2 months
That’s like up to 3 months time!
If you have your training programs ready, a growing list of new potential hires, then you can almost hack your way to being more effective with something like hiring, that I feel like is sometimes the bane of my existence.
Stop Learning. Start Doing. Then Learn.
You’re already wasting your time reading this post.
There’s no better “Aha” moment I’ve had, than when I started unsubscribing from blogs, stopped reading blogs, and stopped consuming content altogether.
You already know everything you need to do, you just have to start doing it.
There’s no silver bullet.
Most of what we’ve done and will continue to do requires hard work and long hours. But most importantly, we’re learning as we’re going.
I’ve been doing PPC for just 4 years now.
I’m not an agency magician and I know that $100k/mo is still a relatively low number compared to other agencies out there.
But what I do know is that none of this is rocket science. It’s literally common sense, time management, and knowing what competitors are lacking.
If I can do it, you definitely can too.