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The Lessons Learned Growing An Agency to 24 People

Local Digital

In the lead up to our sixth birthday I wanted to put together this post looking at our growth from what was essentially a 2-man freelance operation at the start, to where we stand today - a full service digital growth agency with an ever expanding team of 24.

I'll cover off the lessons learned over the past six years and try to pull back the curtains as much as possible on the good and bad moves we've made as an agency over that time.

I'll be trying to cover the lessons that matter when growing an agency:

  •  Positioning and the types of clients serviced
  •  Approach to sales
  •  Approach to marketing
  •  Hiring and building a team
  •  Operations and processes

It's certainly been a wild ride.

I've felt like quitting more than once or twice along the way.

There's been ups... we've won awards for great work. There's been downs... we've had to sue clients to get paid.

We've had clients cancel out of the blue without saying a word when their results were amazing.

We've watched as other client's businesses have grown like a weed thanks to our efforts, and truly got to enjoy seeing the difference we've made in their life.

Most of all, over the years we have been constantly learning, refining and improving.

Here are some of the lessons learned growing from a 2-person operation working out of this office:

To a 24 person operation like this (16 seats in our Sydney HQ and 8 remote):

In The Beginning

Here's our first office, in all it's glory.

It was a shoebox in size, based in Drummoyne in Sydney in an old and shabby corporate centre:

Myself and my co-founder Dom kicked the business off in the summer of 2015.

For the few years prior to that we had been working at a larger search marketing agency. We pretty much dealt with enterprise size brands there. Think eBay, Harvey Norman, iiNet, Suncorp Group, Unicef etc.

Dom worked in the Google Ads team and then later in a client account management role. I worked in the SEO team and later also worked on CRO projects.

We'd spoken on and off about going out in the world as solo freelancers, and naturally the conversation turned to partnering up.

We got together at my place one day and freestyled the approach we wanted to take with the business. Upon launching we pretty quickly discovered it was a horrible approach, but anyway, that day we decided we wanted to:

  •  Focus on the small business end of the market
  •  Bring our enterprise know how and execution to this end of the market.
  • Promote the fact that when clients work with us they deal direct with the experienced, owners of the business, not a sales person.
  • Used lines like "skill and execution of a big agency without the price tag"

There were numerous problems with this approach.

As digital marketing nerds coming fresh from the tools, we were not sales people.

We didn't know how to spin a story to try and win a client, we weren't aggressive "hunters".

We would spend hours writing out proposals in an email, explaining in nitty gritty technical detail what we would do for their campaign.

We would do this for any lead we got, no matter how big or small. We were just keen to work with anyone and get some revenue in the door.

Here's an example of a lead we received in the early days:

Today, we would politely decline to proceed any further with this lead, as we have learned that working with brand new businesses is not good for either party.

But back then we had multiple meetings with this person then spent a long time putting together a written proposal for them.

All for $600 in revenue:

Some prospects appreciated that approach, and we were able to pick some clients up along the way.

Be that as it may, we both didn't take a salary for the entire first six months the business was in operation.

What lesson was learned in this time?

Don't be afraid to charge a fair and reasonable rate for your services.

A lot of the time this means saying no to clients.

As tempting as it is to get revenue in the door in the early days, it's not the best move for a few reasons.

It doesn't make sense for a brand new business to invest with an agency.

At that point, it's better for the business owner to grow the business themselves. Once they're bigger and have less time available is the time to bring in an agency to take the work off their plate.

As an agency, we're doing ourselves and probably the client a disservice by working with brand new startups and businesses on a tight budget.

The amount of time you need to sink in to servicing these small clients means it simply doesn't make sense commercially to be working with these types of businesses.

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