It’s the middle of the night, around 3 AM, on a Wednesday in March in early 2019. I’m tossing and turning. As most of us do in the middle of the night I’m thinking and stressing out over anything and everything. My kids, my family, our health, finances, friends, relationships, you name it. The usual stuff. However, running a digital marketing agency with 3 new employees, I’m also thinking and stressing out about many other things.
Thoughts enter my mind about Payroll, about supporting our employees, serving our clients, projects, are we meeting deliverables, are we doing our best work, are we planning correctly… The list goes on. That typical 30-minute middle of the night awake time is now 2 hours of being awake. And my 2-year old will probably be up the second I close my eyes…
Flashback to October 2017. When Doug and I decided to “do our own thing” 2 years ago, we came in with eyes wide open. We knew we were going to do things differently, or as different as we could. We had been in the industry for close to 2 decades, working for large agencies and startups. We generally knew what we liked about the advertising industry, what we perceived as the right formula for success, how we wanted to be treated, how we wanted to treat future employees, and most importantly, how we wanted to best serve our clients (and what kind of clients we wanted). We’d figure out the operational elements, what kind of margins we want to target, the sales cycle and how to acquire new clients. We would also figure out what kind of clients we work best with – we had an idea, in theory. We had fairly large networks of people that we had begun reaching out to, who knew us, who had worked with us, and had moved on to brands or other agencies.
With that, we started this journey, and it’s been a terrific ride. There’s nothing like running your own business, especially when you’re experiencing success. Sure, we’ve also taken our lumps, it hasn’t all been flowers and rainbows. But when we’ve made a mistake we’ve learned from it. We’ve put in everything we have and have reaped the rewards. We’ve grown substantially, from literally the 2 of us working remotely at the end of 2018 to now close to 10 full time employees, 2 offices, and a healthy client roster.
We’ve also learned a lot (and have a lot to learn) – some things that we sort of expected, other things maybe not as much. Several things have really stuck with us, as Doug and I have grown our company. These takeaways and learnings have helped us grow and have strengthened our beliefs in our mission and goals.
With that in mind, here is a list of 11 main takeaways and learnings in running a 2-year-old digital marketing agency:
1. Building Relationships throughout our careers has clearly paid off. Whether you know you’re going to start a company one day or not (some of us do, some of us don’t), building relationships along the way, throughout your career is a must. Even if you’re an introvert, building bonds and relationships with colleagues, clients, and superiors on your projects and engagements is not hard. Delivering great work, being friendly and polite, not burning bridges. Going the extra mile. These need to be part of your DNA. As you get older, you only realize how important this is. Of course, starting a company and reaching out to potential clients who are former colleagues and acquaintances is a lot easier if those people remember you fondly. If you’re content to stay within the workforce and not pursue the entrepreneurial route, as you move to other jobs throughout your career, this is equally as important, as you may end up working for someone or have someone refer you whom you’ve worked with in the past.
2. Trust and partnerships with our Clients is the ultimate catalyst. When you provide a true partnership to your clients, when you deliver and do great work, you build trust. Often, your great work results in ROI for your clients, which means they want to do more work with you since they have more money to spend. We have great partnerships and trust built with our best clients, and have developed long standing relationships. It simply feels like we’re one committed team.
3. It’s hard not to take RFP losses personally. We all hate losing RFPs. Even if you tell yourself that you didn’t want it that badly, that the project would have been difficult, that you underscoped the bid, etc. Anyone with a competitive fire hates losing. I hated losing RFPs when I worked at other agencies; it stings 10 times more owning your own agency. We tell ourselves it’s not personal, we review and discuss what we could have done better, how to adapt and change our strategy for future RFPs. But it still sucks. As a small agency, you put everything you have into RFPs, which makes it all that more crushing when you don’t win… Which makes winning all that more exciting and euphoric. There’s nothing like receiving that email or phone call letting you know you’ve won a competitive bid.
4. The right platforms are major enablers to your business. Given our vast background and expertise with all flavors of content management systems, marketing automation, CRM and analytics platforms, we like to think of ourselves as technology agnostic at XDS. Paradigms and feature sets are generally the same from one platform to another, give or take; once you’ve worked with one enterprise CMS, chances are you’ll adapt well to another one. Same with marketing automation platforms. Our model allows us to work with a variety of platforms like AEM, Sitecore, Marketing Cloud, Marketo, and more.
Having said that, investing a bit more in certain platforms has been a tremendous enabler for us. WordPress and occasionally Drupal are table stakes these days for marketing agencies, but we’ve gone a step further. We became a HubSpot partner in late 2018, as we had an ideal client for the platform. Since then we’ve been able to onboard several others. HubSpot has since become a huge growth catalyst for our clients, and a platform we’ve gotten really good at, which has in turn has allowed us to provide our clients with a slew of related ongoing services, from email communication, landing pages to blogs, SEO and reporting. We also just recently went to our first INBOUND – you can read more about what we learned there in our recent post. Salesforce has been a platform we’ve rapidly evolved our expertise on as well, again with the market dictating the need.
Likewise with SharePoint. While it’s clearly not sexy or cutting edge, SharePoint and Office 365 are intertwined in the fabric of most companies as part of the Microsoft stack. As such, intranets are a service we’ve been providing in various shapes and sizes, from a slew of portals for large pharma companies like Janssen to complete intranet creation for our client Rubius Therapeutics.
5. While on the topic of platforms, the right internal platforms are also important enablers. You typically won’t find a modern agency relying on too much email, hence a messaging platform is important; an effective, cloud-based file storage and sharing system is a must, as is a robust and accessible project/task management system; a modern teleconferencing platform is a daily necessity; an internal CRM helps a lot. Lastly, an easy and intuitive time tracking system that allows you to generate detailed invoices is critical (and I emphasize easy, because a lot of agencies still don’t understand that part).
We went through the natural progress of using free tools (ahem, Google), to trying out some paid tools, to taking a step back and doing a deeper assessment, to then rapidly growing and having to reassess again, to netting out with our current internal platform stack. Today, these are the main tools in our tool belt, and they are important enablers to how we can quickly intake projects and move rapidly to execution:
- Slack for messaging. Slack is our primary means of communication; so much so that we rarely write emails to one another.
- Dropbox for cloud file storage and versioning. We quickly saw the shortcomings of Google Drive, and with a HIPAA compliant need, moved to Dropbox, which has been great.
- Asana for project and task management. For a while, we used Jira, but as our staff grew and we developed a general model and pattern of how we work on projects, its shortcomings became evident. We went through an assessment of about 2 months, trying out just about every project management system under the sun – Workamajig, Monday, Basecamp, Kanbanize, Jira plugins, you name it. In the end, we had a clear winner – Asana. While we came in looking for one platform to rule them all, what we found out throughout the process is that no single platform does everything well. While one may provide great reporting, it’s short on usability; another might have great kanban-type dashboards and task management, but integrates poorly with other systems. Asana seemed to check off enough areas, and we were able to round out its shortcomings with other tools. Which brings me to our next platform:
- Harvest for time tracking. We started out with TSheets, seeing as how it was integrated with Quickbooks and was fairly easy to use; however, as our staff grew, we quickly realized its shortcomings, mostly around features, reporting and forecasting. Enter Harvest. In conducting our project management platform assessment, we looked at Harvest. While we weren’t looking at the platform with the lens of just time tracking, we realized later that we should have been looking at it for that specific function all along, and it’s been great. Combined with the Forecast tool the platform offers, we have everything we need for easy time tracking, reporting, invoice-friendliness, and resource forecasting. I will say, we are starting to see some small shortcomings with Harvest, specifically around splitting up tasks and projects, archival and editing; but we’re definitely not at the point where this is an obstacle. Something to keep an eye on though.
- Amazon Chime for teleconferencing. A free throw into our Vonage business account (we use Vonage for virtual phone lines), we love ourselves some Chime. Easy to use, comes with a dedicated dial-in number and personal URLs, it meets all of our needs. Having used Join.me initially, we find Chime to be generally better and less confusing.
- HubSpot as our CRM and Marketing Automation system. Being a partner and an advocate of the platform we also use it internally to easily manage contacts, deals and online marketing efforts (social and email primarily).
6. Not being afraid of being specialized. For most of our careers, Doug and I have worked in the healthcare space, primarily working on a variety of health and wellness brands, from big pharmaceutical companies to small and mid-size biotechs. That’s not to say we haven’t worked in other areas – consumer products, technology, sports and entertainment, even energy. However, our capability decks have always reflected a more healthcare specialty, as prospective clients took note. With our web redesign earlier this year, we decided we were ready to update our messaging as well and broadcast that we are in fact focused on health and wellness, and it certainly hasn’t hurt in how we are being perceived and the type of inbound leads we’re receiving. It’s also helped in how we are identified by prospects and helps us have more contextual conversations. There aren’t too many boutique shops like ours with the vast big brand healthcare experience we bring to the table.
Specialties aside, are we still doing non-healthcare work? Absolutely. Digital Marketing is digital marketing at the end of the day, and designing experiences is at our core. We can dig into an industry, a product, a client’s challenge and produce some amazing results – be it a law firm, an educational company, an insurance company, a consulting firm, and more. Speaking of which, check out the work we’ve done for Godiva, for instance.
7. Hiring the right People is insanely critical, and the right in-house staff is a game changer. For the first year of our existence it was Doug, myself and a variety of contractors and vendors. As we grew, we hit a critical juncture in late 2018 where we were able to bring on full-time employees, and things really took off from there. We went from the 2 of us to close to 10 FTEs in the span of less than a year, by earlier this summer. The advantages have been tremendous. Lower overhead, better communication for our clients and internally, ability to adapt and take on more work, ability for Doug and I to do less of the executional work – allowing us to focus on more big picture/growth oriented tasks – and more. We wouldn’t have been able to do so without a tremendous staff.
I’d be lying if I sat here and told you we went through some lengthy interview process, interviewed dozens of candidates, gave a series of personality tests, etc. First of all, as a growing agency, who has time for that?! Second, if you need a million interviews, tests and layers and a lengthy process, your intuition probably stinks and you’re not going to hire the right person anyway. The candidate will probably hate you before they even join your company… For us, it was much simpler. Word of mouth for referrals, trying out contractors and hiring them if we liked them, honest and transparent conversations with prospective employees. That’s it! Will that process change as we grow and evolve? I’m sure, inevitably. You better believe we’ll retain this ideal and direct approach however.
8. Paying recruiter premiums suck, but sometimes inevitable. There’s a reason recruiters are in business, they are good at what they do. As a small agency, we’ve sometimes had to rely on them in a pinch, when our network couldn’t quite deliver. The premiums stink, and hurt your bottom line, but it’s a trade off we have to make to quickly find the right individuals for our company. Thankfully, we’ve been able to stave off having to utilize recruiters once we got past the first couple of hires – referrals from employees, LinkedIn ads, our own recruiting efforts have managed to suffice.
9. You can’t be afraid to network and do outreach. Whatever fears or hesitations we had about simply networking and talking to people before starting our own company, we left at the door. It sure helps having that extra confidence in owning your own business; but at conferences, anywhere we go, we talk to everyone. You may talk to 4 vendors at a conference, but that 5th person may turn out to be your best client. Similarly with online outreach. You may send 20 LinkedIn messages; you could be reaching that 20th person at just the right time and they are looking for a partner. Having experienced success, we’re also confident in what we’re telling prospects and how we sell ourselves. We know we can help people.
10. Finding the right balance between remote and onsite work is important. Maybe its what Doug and I have gotten used to in recent years – young children, long commutes, and our industry in general which doesn’t require you to always be in an office – but as we’ve created our culture and established offices, we’ve created a pretty flexible and accommodating remote and onsite balance for our team and ourselves. We’re doing our best work, not missing deadlines, our employees appreciate it, and it seemed to work quite well for us. We still go into the office a few days a week, as talking in person and seeing one another is important, but we don’t ask anyone to be in an office 5 days a week or even 4. Long commutes suck the life out of you, as does being away from your family, so we’re very mindful of that. As we grow, we’ll look to evolve this policy, but retaining this balance will always be at our core and important to us as a company.
11. Having a co-founder and business partner is key. I’ve known Doug professionally for over a decade, and we’ve worked together for multiple companies, as well as on freelance projects. We had talked for years about starting our own agency, and I suppose we were just waiting for the right time. He’s the ying to my yang (or maybe he’s the yang, I’m not sure). It also helps that Doug is the creative brain, while I’m the technical and operational brain. We established early on that everything is 50/50 and we’ve both worked our butts off to meet our end of the stick. Having that partner has allowed each of us to take time off when needed, to rely on the other person if something comes up, to bounce ideas off of one another, and in general to keep one another honest (and be honest and transparent with one another). It’s allowed us to grow a heck of a lot quicker – for instance, instead of 1 network, we’ve had 2 networks to start with. Instead of 1 person doing prospecting, you have 2 people right off the bat.
Sure, we’ve learned lots of other things. We’ve also had to unlearn some things. It’s way different working for a large company that takes care of everything one minute, then having to take care of all of your benefits, office space, payroll, HR, acquiring clients and more on your own. But these main takeaways have stuck with me the most, and I hope they help others who are in the early stages of starting their own company or are considering it. I can’t wait to see what the next stages of growth will bring.
Shai Reichert – Co-Founder, Technology & Operations
Shai is a technologist, marketer and strategist who has been seeped in digital throughout his entire career, from working at startups and agencies to fortune 500 companies like Comcast. When he’s not chasing his kids around, at XDS he focuses on creating best-in-class technical solutions and digital marketing stacks for clients like Shockwave Medical, Rubius Therapeutics and more.