3 secrets to starting a digital agency (from someone who’s actually done it)

You don’t learn about sales in marketing class. You don’t learn about management through design experience. You don’t learn about the ins-and-outs of running a business until you actually start running a business. And that makes it kind of hard to start out.

Conklin Media logo

Conklin Media logo by Rintika via 99designs by Vista.

At least that was how it felt when I started my first company. I didn’t have any outside investors or on-hand consulting experts; all I had was a $5,000 dollar credit card and a little background in sales from a previous job. It was precisely that encompassing view of business that allowed me to be named on Inc 500’s list of fastest growing companies two years in a row.

Now, I’m poised to do it over again with my new digital agency, Conklin Media. We’ve already reached similar highs by helping our clients net tens of thousands of leads and earn millions of dollars in revenue. This time around I could breath a lot easier because I know an agency’s success isn’t about the amount of resources you have going into it, but about making smarter decisions and following the best practices. And it’s that wisdom that I want to share with you today.

Below, I’ve outlined the three most important tips that helped me start a digital marketing agency, keep it afloat and ultimately succeed. These strategies aren’t taught in school, so use them to give you the benefit of experience even if you’re just starting out.

1. Create a lead-generation engine

In the late 90s/early 2000s, business demanded a little more elbow grease. I was working for a real estate agency back then, and I spent a lot of time cold calling and driving around location spotting. This was a time when you couldn’t get phone numbers online, so I had to thumb through my phone book for all the potentially interested residents in a neighborhood.

The task was not only time-consuming, but also disheartening. All day, I was calling people who just weren’t interested; hearing “no” for hours felt like bashing my head into a wall over and over. But that was the job, and—like clockwork—every 200 disappointments led to someone finally saying, “yeah, I’d be interested in selling my property.”

Real estate lawn sign for sale

Real estate lawn sign designed by ácido! via 99designs by Vista.

The technique of cold calling worked at drumming up business, but presented another problem in its place. When we were actually working on selling real estate, we didn’t have time to canvas for new business. Our agency was stuck in an up-and-down, on-and-off workflow where we couldn’t look for new leads while working on our old leads.

That’s not a problem unique to real estate. Most agencies of any industry suffer the same trouble of having to choose between getting new clients or satisfying old ones. So from that point onward, I started looking for new, more streamlined methods for generating leads.

That’s how I first got into digital marketing. Since the web was still young and unfamiliar, I was able to incorporate SEO techniques before our competitors and I took advantage of early Google Adwords before it was even called “Google Adwords.”

Soon enough, we were receiving hundreds of thousands of leads from all over the country. Over the years, our company thrived and flourished. It was an amazing ride, and all because we sought more efficient ways to generate leads.

5 strategies for generating leads

Placing an emphasis on lead-generation is one of my personal keys for success, especially considering how many other digital marketers don’t devote enough resources to it. While both SEO and Adwords have gotten more complex since my humble beginnings, there are still plenty of underutilized techniques to keep your company flush with work:

  • Identify your target clients. The first step in generating leads is knowing what kind of people or companies make up your best leads. Who are your perfect clients? What are their income brackets? Which sites do they frequent online? How do they prefer to be reached? All other lead generation tactics depend on first narrowing down your range. For reference, Conklin Media targets mostly B2B companies with 21 million in annual revenue.
  • Alert services. You can set up special alerts any time people buy a new domain name. That means if you focus on domain names relevant to your target clients, you can have your sales team contact them directly.
  • Affiliate marketing. Sites like CJ Affiliate and ShareASale can introduce you to the best partner sites for reaching your target clients, whoever they are.
  • Outsource cold calling. Nowadays, you can outsource your cold calling needs to companies that specialize in just that. I don’t recommend cold calling yourself (as a manager and future business owner, you’ve got better things to do), but if you can afford to outsource the work, cold calling remains a slow-but-steady method for getting leads even today.
  • Stellar website. Your website is arguably your most important business tool. You want to make sure your site showcases what you do, your unique value proposition, your slogan, your clients (for social proof), some statistics that prove your effectiveness, and a call-to-action. I recommend using StoryBrand to help identify where your site has room for improvement.

2. Bulk out your workforce with freelancers

Trippy 70s space rock illustration

Rather than mimicking a style, it’s better to hire an artist that specializes in whatever style you need. like BATHI above via 99designs by Vista.

On the logistical side of running a digital agency, you need to finance a highly effective workforce at a low enough overhead to survive. The best way to have your cake and eat it too is using freelancers. They offer the benefits of hiring additional workers without the costs of hiring additional workers.

As I mentioned in my previous article on how to scale an agency, freelancers allow you to accommodate periods of extra work, without paying more than you need during dry spells. Moreover, freelancers allow you to widen the range of services or styles you offer with no risk; if your client wants a trippy sci-fi style, you can just hire the appropriate freelancer. That’s a lot better than turning them away because none of your in-house designers can do that. And don’t forget the obvious perk that freelancers are a lot cheaper.

Design contests

In all creative industries like design, freelancers give you and your clients a wider and more diverse range of options. Clients for design work love to browse samples and choose the one that speaks directly to them. They appreciate having a more direct role in the process. The problem is expenses; every new designer you commission a sample from is one more fee.

The more affordable option for both agencies and clients are design contests. For example, 99designs by Vista here uses crowdsourcing to generate dozens of designs for the price of one. Only designers who have the time to spare or are feeling confident apply, so everyone wins.

It works like this:

  1. You submit the criteria for your concept.
  2. Designers see the contest and submit (you’ll usually around 30 or so submissions).
  3. You (or your clients) select the submission they like best.
  4. You work with the winner to finalize the designs.

To show you what I’m talking about, below are three design contest samples created according to the client’s specifications. Which one would you have chosen?

In my personal experience, this is a huge help in recruiting clients, especially with on-the-fence prospects. People are more likely to sign up with you when you already have a concept they like, and thanks to 99designs by Vista’s contests, you can give them multiple options.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t have any in-house workers. At my agency, I use a happy medium: in-house experts manage every department, but teams of freelancers work under them. That gives me a close and long-term relationship with my department heads alongside the flexibility of branching out whenever the job calls for it.

How to find the best freelancers

Freelancers are always a good strategy, but you have to use caution when hiring them. The difficulty lies in figuring out who’s the best, and who’s merely pretending to be the best. Not to scare you, but freelancers can be horrible; I once interviewed a designer who had stolen one of our projects and put it in his portfolio as his own. He tried to impress me by stealing my work!

To side-step deceptive freelancers, I recommend two strategies:

  • Give them a test project. Set your own criteria to make sure they’re not copying work, but make sure to pay them for their efforts.
  • Have them explain their process. Take a specific project from their portfolio and have them walk you through step-by-step how they made it. That’s a good way to see how involved they were in its creation. This is most effective on the phone or in-person, when there’s no time for fabrication.

For specialized projects outside your expertise, don’t be scared to ask a friend for help. Recently I needed to hire a videographer, but since I’m pretty clueless about video, I asked a buddy of mine to join me for the interview. He was able to judge the applicant’s skill far better than I could have alone.

One last note: always price your projects so that you can afford to hire freelancers if you need them. I’ve found myself stuck in the middle of projects when all I needed was an extra pair of hands but couldn’t afford one. In this respect, a little foresight can ultimately save a project.

3. Understand the interconnectivity of business

If you think a marketing degree is enough to run an entire business, you’re in for a harsh awakening. The multi-faceted world of business comprises dozens of different disciplines—not the least of which is sales. As strange as it sounds, they don’t teach about sales in marketing class, so we end up with a large number of marketing grads who don’t know one of the cornerstones of business.

How sales makes or breaks an agency

The first people I hired at Conklin Media were salespeople. Let that sink in for a minute. They weren’t marketers or designers, even though we labeled ourselves as a digital marketing and design agency. I hired salespeople first because, quite simply, sales is the root of all business.

Businessman illustration

Illustration for a business profile by -Z- via 99designs by Vista.

That’s something most people who aren’t risk-takers are terrified to do. Their thinking is they don’t want to hire a sales team before they have the capability to sell anything. But really, they just end up hurting themselves; a lot of times, these agencies struggle to get off the ground because they can’t bring in enough business to sustain them.

There’s so much a successful business needs beyond just marketing. If you specialize in only one area, your eyes are going to glaze over when partners bring up lifetime customer value, returns on investment, or how changing the color of your call-to-action button can raise conversions.

The bottom line is the bottom line

Beyond just sales, I’ve always found a bottom-line mentality helped me in running my agency. Every little thing you do will either increase or decrease the bottom line, so you want to pay attention to every decision you make, no matter how small. Understanding business means understanding how all the little nuances in each department add together to determine the numbers in your financial reports.

To give you a quick example of how tiny choices can have a huge impact, I remember once we were dealing with a site that featured a picture of a group of people. Images on websites can be tricky because you’re dealing with the intricacies of both web design and photography, not to mention how they both change when combined. Anyway, we tried changing the direction the people in the picture were looking—a seemingly innocuous change to people with little experience in design. That small adjustment ended up increasing the site’s conversion rate by 5%.

Now, I don’t honestly expect any one agency manager to know all the best practices of each field… but with a team of handpicked freelancers, you’ll have all your bases covered. Surrounding yourself with people who understand their respective disciplines, well, that’s just good business.

Takeaway: Starting an agency of your own

One of the biggest draws of opening your own marketing agency is that it’s your agency. You call the shots, make the decisions, and put in the work. You get the rewards, but you also take the blame. It’s your baby, raised by a family of your employees.

You’ll notice in the above tips, I didn’t go through step by step what I did to build a successful agency. That’s because what I did may not work for you. I wanted to keep my tips open-ended to give you flexibility of applying them your way. I suggest focusing on sales first, but how depends on you. I suggest taking full advantage of freelancers, but whom you hire depends on you. You’re free to tailor your business strategy to what works best for you, using my advice as merely a framework. In other words, don’t be afraid to make your agency feel like yours.

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