What would you tell your younger self about starting a digital agency?

Wanting to hear from digital marketing agency gurus out there. Folks who have started and run successful digital agencies. If you could coach your younger self and your younger self was starting an agency from scratch and gaining clients was NOT an issue, what would say to focus on to grow the business as fast as possible, but grow it well? In other words, what are the pitfalls someone without your experience should avoid and what are the shortcuts someone with your expertise would take to grow fast, but still manage clients and provide a great product and great service? Example thoughts would be: 1. Who should be the first real hire? 2. Are there any aspects of digital marketing that should be either avoided altogether or should only be added once a good foundation is set? (i.e. web design/development) 3. What is the best but fair way to secure recurring income while providing value worthy of it? 4. Would you start with outsourcing to India or the Phillipines et al. and if so, what positions are best outsourced to these locations? 5. What are other ways to make sure clients feel taken care of even if you may not yet have the full staff just yet to manage everything on point? So, if you have advice (from legit experience) on how to growth hack a digital agency, l really would love to do a call with you, so whatcha got? :)


I worked from a home office for 8 years before getting an office and hiring w2 employees. I wish I had focused more on systems earlier because I would have more quickly realized that I do not need a centralized office with employees that work in the same building. Though 75% of us work under the same roof, the way we communicate is the same way we would if everybody was located across the world.

Answered 8 years ago

I love this question!

As a former Googler and Digital Marketing Specialist with my own company, I hope I can offer you some insights.

Finding clients is no issue for me and I'm luckily in a situation of having more demand than I can handle. I love it this way because I can much better plan the business and really dedicate my time to work with clients I consider a good fit and are really ambitious to grow.
The most important aspect to focus on here for growth is to deliver highest quality work and dedicate to 110% excellence. Make exceeding your customer's expectation you highest priority. Everything else will follow.

Wanting to hear from digital marketing agency gurus out there. Folks who have started and run successful digital agencies.

If you could coach your younger self and your younger self was starting an agency from scratch and gaining clients was NOT an issue, what would say to focus on to grow the business as fast as possible, but grow it well?

In other words, what are the pitfalls someone without your experience should avoid and what are the shortcuts someone with your expertise would take to grow fast, but still manage clients and provide a great product and great service?

1. Who should be the first real hire?
--> A virtual assistant. You can't do everything your own and this person will be crucial in freeing you of time-consuming tasks that add little value to your work or clients.

2. Are there any aspects of digital marketing that should be either avoided altogether or should only be added once a good foundation is set? (i.e. web design/development)
Focus on one area in the beginning: e.g. Google AdWords/Analytics setup/optimization/management. Don't do all at once. I see a lot of agencies offering a ton of products but not really doing them well because of a lack of focus. Once you have a solid business and customer base, I'd advise you to start of with partnerships and collaborations for other areas of digital marketing. If that goes well, then consider hiring a person in this specific area.

3. What is the best but fair way to secure recurring income while providing value worthy of it?
Depends a lot on what you offer. However, if you offer high quality work, you will always have customers running to you. Monthly management is definitely worth it, but make sure you do it well and really offer concrete action steps and not just a look at the account once a month.

4. Would you start with outsourcing to India or the Phillipines et al. and if so, what positions are best outsourced to these locations?
No, I hired my first employee from Kenya. India and Phillippines are stereotypes and it is very hard to find someone that understands you, can communicate well, has a good level of English, and is reliable. There is 200 countries in the world - look outside of the typical suspects and you will find very valuable gems and talent.
Positions to be outsourced: can be pretty much everything, from a VA, to a webdesign VA, account manager VA, etc.
Also think about your company's focus - if your focus is also outside the US, you might want to invest in hiring a person part-time in your potential target market.

5. What are other ways to make sure clients feel taken care of even if you may not yet have the full staff just yet to manage everything on point?
Communication. Communication. Communication. Super important. Plus, if something goes wrong or not as expected, tell them. Nobody expects you to be perfect but to find a solution to a challenge/problem.
Create your own list of clients and a system - how often do you catch up with them? Make notes of personal preferences or hobbies - include small talk and show interest in their personality.

This answer got now much longer than I even expected but I hope it helps and offers valuable insights.
Feel free to set up a call - I'd be happy if picking my brain supports your growth and expertise. ;)

Answered 8 years ago

Hi. great question!
I've owned and run a digital marketing agency since 2007. In it's current format it's focused on Adwords and I've a team who run it day to day, with me in a managerial / hands-off / advisory role. Catching up with them on key projects once a week.
Since 2007 we've done a bit of everything, bar web design (dabbled but so totally different from delivering ongoing marketing activity that I'm glad we never really got into it. And by "totally different" I mean the sales funnel, the delivery, the skills, the client involvement - everything!).
We've now drilled it down to Adwords because it's core skill that only a few people have. and it's what we've always done really well for clients.
So to properly start answering your qs:
- don't bill by the hour - fixed fee, monthly retainers are all good. Very few businesses are doing well with commission - the only time I've done it everyone ended up annoyed.
- first real hire - someone who can do the stuff you (a) don't want to do anymore (b) that it's not worth your time to do (c) solves a problem. So it all depends on YOU, what YOU want to do, and what your clients need.
- but - day one - outsource your bookkeeping (dealing with the money, and chasing it in - it's not very expensive, it means it will happen, AND (most importantly) it means you get focus your relationship with teh client on building great results, they don't see you as the guy who shouts at them when they don't pay up on time.
- I'm a big advocate of going to an expert. It's now very hard to be up to date on pracitcal application of all the marketing methods (a full time job in itself) so focus on what you're/ your team are good at. I personally would avoid "SEO"(whatever that means these days), and site dev unless you're going to specialise in one of Shopify / wordpress etc
- recurring income - first step, chose a service to deliver that plays into a recurring model. ie we do adwords because it needs to be optimised every month, and all our clients are on a set monthly fee under a 12 month+ contract. Graphic design does not give you this!
- personally I wouldn't really outsource anything that's delivered for your clients. Apart from admin-y stuff. The occasional research project on Upwork, phone answering, and graphic design bits if you really have to. The core skill/service you're delivering should be delivered by your team - otherwise you're just selling project management...
- to keep clients happy. As soon as they sign send them a physical gift (book / wine / chocs etc) it's going to be a while before they see results so a tangible thing really helps! Do what you promise you will - if you say they'll get a report each month, give them a report each month. Have regular catch ups (every month or so) on the phone / online calls etc. Meet F2F when you need to / every 12months, more often if they're spending more!!
A little bit of a brain dump but I Hope that helps!

Answered 8 years ago

Get started faster on whatever you want to do and don't wait until everything is perfect.

I am not trying to sell you on calling me. Really, I am pretty busy with my businesses and consulting. However, I need more info before I could have a greater impact in helping you.

Ask, Ask, Ask, then Ask again.

Here is $10,000 worth of information for free and in a nutshell.

Concentrate on the 3 M's. There are actually 7, but 3 will do for now. These are Market, Message, and Media. They come in that order.

Who is your target market (customer, clients, buyers, users, etc.)?
Tailor your laser focused message for this target market.
What is the best media mix to get your message to that market?

Here's what you do...first, make it an offer that is so incredible that they cannot resist. Secondly, do all the work for them. Make it so easy to make the purchase now that they can do it virtually without effort. Thirdly, give them an incentive to act right now. Fourthly, offer an almost unbelievable guarantee. Fifth, offer a bonus for acting now. There are many other incredible steps, but these steps should help the novice to the professional sell anything.

Whether you are selling B2B or B2C, you have to focus on selling to only one person. You can actually sell to one person at a time while selling to millions at a time. They are one and the same. Don't get off track, what we call digital marketing selling is just selling in print. And that has not changed since Cluade Hopkins wrote "Scientific Advertising." Really long before he wrote the book.

The secret to success: I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with some of the biggest names in business, celebrities, actors, entrepreneurs, business people, and companies from startup to billion dollar operations. The number one reason for their success is doing what they know and love while doing it in new, creative, and innovative ways.

Ask, Ask, Ask. Have thick skin and learn from each "mistake." In a short while, the market will tell you what you need to do and who and what you need to ask. But get started now even if that just means asking a contact on LinkedIn.

While you are thinking, think big and think of something at least 1% better, newer, or different. And being cheaper is not a winning strategy.

Make decisions quickly and change decisions slowly..unless you are actually going off a cliff.

Remember these two 11 letter words...persistence and consistency. They are two of the most important tools ever invented.

Treat everybody you talk to and everybody you meet (including yourself) like each is your number one million dollar customer.

Bootstrap when possible and reasonable. Read "How To Get Rich" by Felix Dennis. Or better yet just remember the camel's nose in the tent story.

However, sometimes you just need to make a deal.

Listen, in any business you have to take some chances and some risks. Make sure you don't need a license and go for it. Remember, timid business people have skinny kids. Paraphrased from Zig Ziglar.

Best of luck,
Take massive action and never give up.

Michael Irvin, MBA, RN

Answered 8 years ago

After more than 8 years of running my own digital agency I would say to myself: focus on what you do best. That means offer services you know you can do really well. Don't buy software you might need someday of start a new service. Let other people help you do the bookkeeping, technical stuff, etc. It's good to know something about everything, but be great at just a few things. People will always ask you more if things go well, but don't fall into that trap. Just respectfully say no and help them out by pointing to other people you trust can do that job for them. It saves you stress and other people, including the client, are happy with you.

Answered 4 years ago

Starting a digital marketing from scratch I will advice my younger self the following steps to follow:
1. Build your digital marketing skills and self-confidence:
The first step is to build the skills and self-confidence necessary to run a digital marketing agency. This can be broken down into three areas:
1. Digital marketing technical skills
2. Business management skills
3. Self-confidence skills
1. Digital Marketing Skills
Obviously, if you want to start a digital marketing agency you need to build your digital marketing skills. This means you need to know what digital marketing is, how it works and how to run campaigns for increasing your client’s traffic and sales, using one or more digital marketing channels. Digital marketing has a lot of components and while you do not have to know everything from day one, you need to have good knowledge of the following:
II. Google Advertising
III. Facebook Marketing
IV. Social Media Marketing
V. Content Marketing
VI. Email Marketing
As your agency grows, you can build your digital marketing team and hire experts but if you are starting out now with no experience and money, it is important to know how to execute these tasks yourself. This is a critical success factor. In the early stages of your business, you need to minimize your costs and the dependency on other people. You need to have hands-on experience with the various digital marketing processes so that eventually you will figure out what works well (in terms of money and clients) and where you will need help. The best way to master a skill is to learn the theory and best practices from established experts and do a lot of practice. Digital marketing is a highly practical discipline, and it is not enough to know the basics, but you need to gain the necessary experience by practicing digital marketing.
2. Business Management Skills
Since your goal is to start an online business and not work as a freelancer, you need to learn the basics of running a business. You do not necessarily need to have a degree in Business Management, but you need to gradually build some skills related to:
I. Project management
II. Time management
III. Invoicing and billing
IV. Contracts
V. HR management
As a business owner, you will have to do these things from the beginning and probably for a long period of time until you reach a point where you can hire dedicated people.
3. Self-Confidence Skills
You cannot run a business if you are not willing to take some risks. To take risks you need to have self-confidence and to gain self-confidence in the digital marketing industry, you need to have faith in your skills. If you start this business without knowing exactly what steps to take to improve a website’s ranking or how to use advertising to get more customers for your clients, you will fail. So, before you start serving clients, you need to have working experience by either working in an established agency or on your own websites.
Once you get to a point that you can utilize digital marketing techniques to achieve real measurable results, you will know that you are ready to become a service provider. Do not forget that there are thousands of digital marketing professionals and agencies in the market and clients will most probably get multiple proposals and do several interviews before making a hiring decision. Confidence will help you stand out from the crowd so make sure that you equip yourself with the necessary knowledge, skills, and experience before making the big step.
2. Decide what kind of services to offer: The next step is to decide what kind of digital marketing services to offer to your potential clients. A full-service digital marketing agency typically offers the following services:
I. Web design and Development
II. SEO Services
III. PPC Services (Google Ads, Bing Ads, Facebook Ads, etc)
IV. Content marketing services (content writing included)
V. Social media marketing services
VI. Email marketing services
VII. Conversion optimization services
As a start-up, it will be exceedingly difficult to offer all these services from the beginning, so it is better to choose the ones that match your skills. For example, If you’re an SEO expert you can start by providing SEO services only and then as you grow your client base and get more money, you can add more services to your offering. Remember that your goal at this stage is to keep your costs low and depend on your skills. If you try to go full-service from day one, there is a big chance that you will get lost in the process.
3. Decide how you plan to operate your business:
The next decision to make is how you plan to operate your business. You have three choices:
I. As a virtual company from home and hiring remote teams
II. As a ‘traditional businesses with an office and local employees
III. A combination of both
All three options have their pros and cons, and your decision must take into account the costs and the location of your potential clients. For example, if you plan to serve clients in a specific city then having a physical presence in the area, will help you establish your brand and get more local clients.
If you plan on serving clients anywhere in the world then having a physical office will only increase your monthly costs. As a matter of fact, one of the advantages of starting your own digital marketing agency is that you can operate your business from home with remote employees. A lot of online and SaaS companies follow this model, and it is the future of business. As you grow your portfolio, you may consider hiring local employees, but they can also work from their home offices so there is no need at this stage to pay for rent and other office expenses. What you need to do though is find a place in your home and set up your home office. This can be a separate room or an area in your house that you will use to work. Also, since you will be working online, you need to ensure that you have the best internet connection possible.
4. Register your business:
Before proceeding with the next steps, it is time to make it official. And by this, I mean to:
I. Decide the name of your business
II. Register your domain name
III. Design your logo
IV. Register your business legal entity with the relevant authorities
V. Get a tool-free number
VI. Find an accountant and auditor
VII. Find a lawyer
VIII. Create business cards
It is necessary to do this now and put all pieces together even if you will not use all of them from the beginning.
5. Establish your web presence: The first actionable step in the list is to establish your online presence starting with the creation of a website for your business. The website is the ‘front door’ of your agency business, so you need to make sure it accurately represents your brand. Your website needs to look professional and give potential clients all the information they need to decide whether they should hire your company or not. Besides explaining who you are and what you do, make sure that you explain the benefits clients will gain by hiring you. Do not make your website about you but about them. Create dedicated landing pages for all your services and make sure that it is easy for potential clients to contact you without asking too many questions or having them to complete complex signup forms. Your goal is to get as many leads as possible, filter them, and concentrate on the ones that have more chances of becoming clients. Besides creating a website, you also need to secure your brand name on all major platforms (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, etc) and create business pages. Do not omit this step because clients will check your Facebook page and research more about your company before hiring so you need to make sure that everything looks good and professional. Additionally, register your business with websites like Crunchbase and other organizations (local, government) that can help prove your legal existence.

6. Showcase your experience and expertise: One of the most difficult aspects of running a digital marketing agency is to find new clients. But an equally important aspect is to be able to convince prospective clients to work with you. The best way to do this is by demonstrating your experience and expertise.
Practically this means:
I. An ‘about us’ page that tells your story and achievements
II. Success stories
III. Case studies
IV. Academic credentials
V. Known companies you have worked for
VI. Previous working experience
VII. Customer testimonials
VIII. Partnership agreements
IX. Certifications
X. Mentions from other websites
If you are starting out now with no experience, it’s normal that some of the above items may not be applicable to you but do keep them in your to-do list and try to gradually achieve them. For example, do some work on a friend’s business website and ask them to send you a review or get a couple of digital marketing certifications from reputable companies. Use the results achieved by working on your own websites and showcase them as case studies on your business website. Do some guest posting on reputable websites and mention that in your homepage. Be honest about your working experience and only publish real reviews and case studies. Starting a business relationship with a client based on fake reviews is not the way to establish a successful business.
7. Choose the right tools: To run your digital agency efficiently, you will eventually need a lot of tools. In fact, paying for tools licenses will be your second largest expense after paying for salaries. You will need tools to help you optimize your digital marketing campaigns, create reports for the clients, invoicing, accounting and many more. There are many tools in the market to choose from but what you need to have in mind is to select tools that offer features you will actually use and not features that are nice to have. It is quite common for businesses to pay for software features they will never use so choose wisely. Do not forget that you should sign up for tools you can use on your own website but also on your client’s websites so take that into account when comparing the licensing cost of each tool. The first tool you will need is a digital marketing platform like SEMRUSH, ahrefs, Hubspot, Moz. These platforms have tools that can help you with SEO, content marketing, social media marketing, and PPC campaign management. Other paid tools you will need are:
Lead generation software –Optinmonster is helpful to grow email list and improve conversion rates. It is extremely easy to use with a lot of features.
Email Marketing solution – MailChimp is helpful with website and many client websites but there are other good solutions like Drip, Constant Contact, Klayvio and many more.
Grammarly – A must-have tool for all online businesses. It helps you avoid making spelling and grammar mistakes in anything you write online (including emails, proposals, etc).
Canva – Sooner or later you will need a tool to create nice looking graphics and presentations and canva is a great choice.
Other free tools you will need are:
I. Google Analytics
II. Google Tag Manager
III. Google Search Console
IV. Google Data Studio
V. Google Keyword Planner
VI. Google Docs
VII. Google Slides
VIII. Google Forms
IX. Skype
My recommendation is to decide which tools you will use and spend some time learning how to use them and what features they offer. Once you start working with clients, your time will be limited so it is better to familiarize yourself with these tools in advance.
8. Define your business model: The next step in the process is to define your business model i.e. to decide how you will charge for your services. The most popular business models for digital marketing agencies are:
I. Per hour
II. Per project
III. Monthly fee
1. Per hour – You charge an hourly fee for your services. The rate varies from $30 per hour to $120 per hour depending on your experience, location of the client, type of business, type of services you provide and complexity of work.
2. Per project – You make an agreement with the client on a fixed amount to complete the project. If your estimations are correct you make a profit but if you make wrong estimations, you may end up making a loss.
3. Monthly fee – The client pays a monthly retainer for the agreed services. This is usually applicable for monthly SEO services, PPC management, and social media management.
The most profitable model is the ‘monthly fee’ and the least profitable is the ‘per hour’. For new agencies, my recommendation is to start with the ‘per hour’ or ‘per project’ model. It’s not the most profitable model but your goal at this stage is to get new clients and build your portfolio fast and the ‘per hour’ model allows you to adjust your hourly rate to be attractive to new clients.

9. Get your first client: So far, we have discussed how to prepare the ground for your start-up agency but to actually become a real business, you need clients. A business with no clients is just an idea and not a business. So, how do you get your first client? Here are some ideas that worked for me in the beginning.
Friends and family – It are highly likely that your friends and family members have a business or work for a business that can use digital marketing services. Reach out to them and offer to help them with their digital marketing efforts. Take a look at their website in advance and their marketing tactics and come up with a plan on how you can help them get more clients, improve their search presence and in general make more sales. Since this is your first ‘official proposal’ try to make it as detailed as possible with specific goals. Explain to them why they need to invest some money in improving their website, why they need to have active social media pages, how they can benefit from Google ads, the missing opportunities from not using email marketing and anything else needed to convince them to hire you as their digital marketing consultant. Make sure that your pricing at this stage is attractive to them. Your goal is not to start making a profit but to build your portfolio. The lessons learned from working on your first client will be invaluable and they will help you tremendously when working with your first real client.
Online job boards – another way to get your first client is to use websites like Upwork and PeoplePerHour. These websites have hundreds of job postings related to digital marketing and can be a good starting point.
A few pointers to help you out:
I. Make sure that when replying to a job request you answer ALL questions raised in the posting. Read the job description carefully and explain your plan of action.
II. Reply fast. A job posting in those websites gets a lot of responses in a matter of hours and usually, the work is assigned to those that reply first.
III. Be honest and make realistic promises
IV. Keep your prices low

10. Start a Digital marketing blog: While working on your first client, you should find some time to start your own blog. A good blog with useful content is by far the BEST lead generation tool for a digital marketing agency. When clients find you on Google search, you don’t have to ‘sell yourself’, they already know that you’re capable to rank websites high in Google and this helps a lot with the signup process. When creating content for your blog try to target keywords that are related to the type of services you are currently offering and that potential clients may search for. To give you an idea of how powerful this technique is, blogging has been the main source of leads for my agency in the last 10 years. We managed to work with hundreds of clients around the world without paying a dollar on advertising. As a matter of fact, growing your blog should be your top priority because as your blog grows so does your agency. Having no dependency on advertising will also help you turn your company into a profitable business faster.
11. Build your portfolio and customer testimonials: Once you reach this point, your goal should be to continue building your portfolio and customer testimonials. To build your portfolio fast you will still have to provide services at a low cost but getting testimonials and positive reviews from customers will help you signup more and bigger customers in the future. The reason I’m insisting on this point is that while it’s easy to get new clients with low marketing budgets to secure clients with big budgets that can generate good profit, you need to have a decent portfolio and reviews from past customers. I know from experience that this will take time so do not get disappointed but take it step-by-step one client at a time.
12. Create your processes: As you grow your digital marketing agency and get more clients, you will get to a point that you’ll not be able to handle all projects by yourself. That is the time to consider hiring people to help you but before you do, you will need to set up your processes. By processes, we mean to have a set of SOPs (standard operating procedures) to document all the steps you take to perform a specific task. This includes the client onboarding process and all the services you are offering. It is important to do this now before you get new people on board otherwise, you will lose a lot of valuable time explaining to your team how you want them to handle client work. Use your current experience working with clients and spend some time creating email templates, proposal templates, custom reports, and checklists that anyone can follow to perform a specific task. Keep things simple and do not over complicate things. You can create your processes using Google docs and Gmail and organize them in folders.
13. Build your digital marketing team: When you get to a point of having to hire new people, it means that you already have a number of clients, already making a profit and your processes are in place. If you are not at this stage yet, then my recommendation is not to hire people now unless you have the funds to take the risk. Getting new people to replace your self is tricky and something that a lot of digital marketing agency owners had a lot of difficulty in executing at the beginning. Some tips to help you with this process:
I. Start by hiring people for tasks that are easy to execute – Explain to your employees what you expect them to do and document all steps. Refine your process (created in the previous step) so that they are up-to-date and relevant.
II. Start by hiring freelancers instead of full-time employees – This will help you keep your costs low and give you more flexibility. You can use the extra help when needed and on a per-project basis.
III. Give them a pilot project to work on – It’s not always easy to understand what skills a freelancer has so the best way to find out if they are a good fit for your team is to hire them for a pilot project before proceeding to a full-time hire. This will save you a lot of money and frustration from hiring the wrong people.
Besides if you do have any questions give me a call:

Answered 4 years ago

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