The First Steps to Grow and Scale Your Digital Agency

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This post is from a podcast which was originally recorded and published by Jason Swenk on the Smart Agency Podcast show where he interviewed our founder and CEO Jeremiah Smith.

Transcription

Jason:              Welcome to another episode of The Smart Agency Masterclass, dedicated to providing you tactics and strategies to agency owners that cut through the BS and focus on exactly what’s work so you can grow your agency faster. I’m your host, Jason Swenk, and I believe that having the right systems in place is the difference between you growing your agency faster or struggling to make it. And if you want to close more prospects to clients, I want you to check out this free course I just put out called “The 20-Minute Agency Sales Makeover.” It’s three videos that you can watch in less than twenty minutes that will transform your qualification process, position you to win and show you how to convert at over 80% on your proposals. So, I want you to go to AgencyMakeover.com now. AgencyMakeover.com. Now, let’s go ahead and jump into the episode.

                        Hey, man. How’s it going?

Jeremiah: It’s going great. Thanks for having me.

Jason:              Well, I’m excited to have you on the show. You know, we’ve chatted a couple times and you’ve been in the Agency University, but for the people that have not heard of you yet, tell them a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Jeremiah: Sure. Yeah. So, my name is Jeremiah. I’m the president and CEO of an agency called SimpleTiger. We started, actually, in Atlanta and we are a search engine optimization company that specializes in helping software as a service companies grow online using SEO.

Jason:              Awesome. And how long have you been doing this?

Jeremiah: So, I’ve been doing SEO for about 12 years now. I’ve a veteran in the SEO space, but SimpleTiger has gone through a lot of evolution over those years. When I first started doing SEO, it was for anybody that would hand me a dollar to do it. You know? And I’ve been blessed to work with a bunch of different types of companies. So, I started working with small mom and pop shops, and then quickly developed enough skill and enough connections to work at a much bigger agency in Atlanta called 360i. I’m sure you’re familiar.

                        So, I worked with them for a while and really kind of learned how the big boys do it. I worked with clients like NBC, MTV, E-Trade and just some huge companies there,

                        I found, really, that in regards to SEO, it doesn’t matter if you’re a small mom and pop shop or you’re NBC. SEO is still the same game. You have to do all the same stuff. The only difference is, typically, the volume and the budgets. Those are the big differences there.

Jason:              Yeah. I remember, if you go way back in the day, I remember in order to rank in the search engines I would take the same text, whatever word I wanted, and make it the same background. I mean, that’s how far back I go.

Jeremiah: Oh, yeah. “Cloaking,” I think they used to call it. There’s all kinds of good stuff. Yeah.

Jason:              That was awesome.

Jeremiah: There’s some cheesy SEO techniques. Trust me. I’d tried some of those back then, too. That was back in the day when you could change a title tag and start ranking well for a keyword. You know?

Jason:              Oh, yeah. Oh, big time. Yeah. Tell us about your first project and what did you charge?

Jeremiah: Oh, man. That’s a good question. Yeah. So, my first project was a small operation based out of Norcross. They sold ATVs and dirt bikes. It was a family-run operation. Awesome little company. They were hustlers. They worked their tails off, man. They just wanted whatever worked, and I mean whatever worked. So, when I was telling them about SEO, which I was kind of learning at the time, they were like, “I don’t care. Whatever. Just get sales. That’s all we care about.”

                        I was like, “Alright.” So, I focused on teaching myself SEO and I actually was able to help them — let’s see. So, I was paid as a contractor. Again, this is when I was probably 21. And so — yeah. I was like 20, 21 years old. So, for me, 36 grand a year was a huge deal. I was really excited to have this first job, you know, that was paying me that well. But, yeah. The first year that I worked for them, I was able to really move the needle in regards to SEO. Help them rank well, help a lot of dealers sign up, and then my mother handled all their accounting and bookkeeping.

                        So, I was able to go look at the books and just see where all of those sales leads eventually turned into paying business and tie that back to the SEO efforts that I put into place. They went from a $4,000,000 company to a $6,000,000 company over the course of those SEO efforts. So, I saw that $2,000,000 difference being tied back to the $36,000 they paid me and realized the ROI for SEO is massive. So, I was hooked at that point.

Jason:              Very cool. What are some challenges that you had running your agency? A lot of agencies, when they start out, they need to go through a number of different levels, and it’s challenging. And they have a number of different challenges. What were some of the challenges that you had?

Jeremiah: So, there were definitely quite a few, but I’m going to grab probably the few biggest ones. I’ll say, first of all, that I started as a self-taught consultant. You know? I was teaching myself how to do this, and then I taught myself how to do it in-house on the client side, which is actually a really easy place to learn. So, if you’re out there and you’re thinking about getting into SEO or some type of niche digital marketing methodology, I’d recommend probably working client side if you really are a self-teacher because the client’s not going to be able to teach you, but you will be able to teach yourself. And you’ll be able to really watch the needles move manually. I mean, to be able to sit there every day and watch things happen. If you really want to drink from a firehouse, though, go try to get started at an agency.

                        But I will say that you’ll probably get paid less than if you started client side, in my experience, at least. But the challenge for me was to go from that lone wolf consultant type into building an agency, because building an agency — what I think about when I think of that is building a team of people around you that are specialist and that have strengths in areas that you might not. And how you go from being a consultant by yourself to having this team of people around you, that transition was very difficult for me. And, at times, it still can be just a little bit, but the pressure has been taken off quite a bit because I’ve been really blessed to find some incredible talent that we’ve hired. We’ve got such a good team.

                        I understand, though, that that’s not the norm. We’ve still made our mistakes in regards to hiring and firing and things like that, but I will say that going from being a lone wolf to having a team can be a difficult transition. Separating your personal life from the business is another part of it. Making sure that all your expenses and income are completely delineated, from an accounting and tax perspective, is another important area where when I was a consultant, whatever dollar I made, I could spend, but as an agency owner that is not the case. So, I think that transition, if I’m being totally vulnerable and honest with myself, those are the hardest parts.

Jason:              Yeah. Now, what was the first role you hired?

Jeremiah: The first role I hired. So, I had SimpleTiger going by myself for a little while, and I had my brother contracted for SimpleTiger and he was helping me handle some projects and things like that. But he hadn’t gotten any agency experience at the point that we were that size where it was just me and then a few contractors out there. And so, he got a job at an agency that we had worked with in the past. I said, “Look, let’s just have you work there, kind of sharpen your skills there and develop some stuff that we can really use with our own agency. Because, quite frankly, we’re still too small to even hire you, but their agency can afford it. So, let’s do that. And then, as we build SimpleTiger, we’ll get to a point where you can join in.

                        And that’s exactly what we did. So, the first person I hired was my brother. I made him a shareholder and all that. He and I grew up sharing everything. We work really well together anyway, so I knew that wouldn’t be a problem. It would come with its own difficulties, but they’re not anything I couldn’t handle or that he couldn’t handle. So, his role was definitely on the kind of strategy side of things in helping me manage clients on a day-to-day basis because we had enough clients by the time that he started that it was a lot of work. I mean, I was putting in 60-80 hours a week just managing the business and all of our clients. So, when he came on, that really took some pressure off and allowed us to both kind of manage half and half, and then both do a little bit of sales half and half.

                        So, that was the first role, but I assume, for most people listening, that’s not going to be practical or reasonable. Like, that’s not going to be something they could do. So, that said, what I decided to do was my knack and my skill was sales. I’ve always been comfortable in the sales role. I knew exactly how to pitch what I wanted to talk about and I was, actually, very scared to have anybody else do that. A lot of agencies out there would say hire sales people first, and I totally understand why. But, for me, I wanted to hire somebody in-house who could produce first. Somebody who could take things that I sold and turn it into a product and manage that product for the client.

                        And so, we did that. We hired internally people who were good at the technical aspects of SEO, or content aspects of SEO, and then just set them up with processes and then got to work selling and just handed them projects left and right and had them deliver for us. And that’s kind of proven to be the model that just worked really well for us.

 

Jason:              Would you like to grow your agency three times faster? Would you like to work directly with me where you can ask me questions and I can give you the answers that you need so you can grow your agency faster? If so, I want to tell you about the Agency University. We’re getting ready to open enrollment again, and you have to request an invite if you go to Agency.University. Now, Agency University is an innovative mentorship where you get to work directly with me and we send you the resources and support you need in order to grow your agency. So, if you want to know more, go to Agency.University.

 

Jason:              Now, why did you do that? Why did you — because, you know, everybody was telling you the sales role, and I’d heard the same thing and I actually agree with the role that you went because it freed you up. But what was the reason behind hiring people that could actually do the work first?

Jeremiah: I know it sounds crazy, and honestly, Jason, this is where, again, I’m going to be vulnerable with you. And you’ve helped me quite a bit in this area. But I could still use some growth in this area. I have held onto the sales role as my dear baby because of how — and this might just be in my industry specifically, and when I say that I mean SEO specifically. Like, in the SEO realm, if anyone out there has bought and sold SEO services, or dealt with SEO people, you know that nine times out of ten you feel like you’re dealing with a loan shark or title pawn or something. It’s just like snake oil “salesy,” right? It’s very dangerous to go out there and try to hire SEO help, because the common theme is people pull the wool over your eyes because it can be extremely confusing if you don’t know enough about it.

                        So, for me, I knew that that was the case because that was how I first got into SEO. I was working at that mom and pop shop and we got a call from an agency one day that was pitching SEO services. Later on, like two years later, they were read out on SEOmoz as one of the top scammers in the SEO realm. So, I was blown away at how shady people could be. And I am not like that at all. I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m very open and honest. So, I wanted to make sure that every time I was positioning SEO, I was doing it in the best light possible, I was doing it as accurately as possible, I was leading with the caveats. I would start by saying, “Look, you can’t invest in SEO right now if you’re trying to eat tomorrow. You need to invest in SEO right now if you’re going to try to eat a little more this time next year.”

                        You know? So, where are you at in terms of company size and growth? What are your expectations? You know, I’d lay that kind of stuff out first, and I turned a lot of people off to investing in SEO right away, but in a really healthy way. A lot of sales people out there are probably cringing hearing me say that, but regardless, I knew that in the long run I would develop a relationship with those people and they would come back. So, really, for me, it was about positioning it properly and not fooling people into giving me a paycheck today. It was about developing deep, healthy relationships and educating people first. Because then, when they’re absolutely ready to pull the trigger, they’re going to go back to the person that taught them everything they know, and that’s kind of how I saw that.

Jason:              Yeah. You know, I mean, that’s the right way to think about it. I mean, obviously, you need to get over — there’s legit salespeople out there that could do the same thing where you could adapt and go to the next role.

Jeremiah: Sure.

Jason:              We could talk about that. But, you know, I totally get your concerts because I hired some of them. And you probably even know some of the salespeople that we had. Toward the beginning and the middle, we didn’t have good salespeople. They would sell things just to sell and get a paycheck, and then our delivery team would be like, “What did you sell?” Right? And then we would be screwed and the client would hate us. You know? It was just the customer experience just went down the hill and then it spread bad.

                        And so, I certainly understand that concern, but it’s just all about figuring out — like, I love that you hired the people that are actually doing the work because a lot of what I see in the agency space is they go, “Well, we’ll hire salespeople because we need to do the work. We need to control that.” But then, if you’re always doing that, or if you’re managing — and here’s the other thing, too. If you’re always managing the client’s expectations and the back and forth, you’re building a prison around you.

Jeremiah: Yeah.

Jason:              Right? You can never go on vacation. One of my — the biggest success I’ve had is not based on revenue from my client’s generating revenue from what I’ve told them. It’s the ability for them to take off a month if they want because they setup the right systems in order to allow that, and they’re charging the right amount in order to hire the right people. And it just always kind of — there’s like a foundation you need to build. And hiring the right people is the difference between a prison or a job, or the freedom.

Jeremiah: Sure.

Jason:              So, I love that you did that. But you do need to — we’ll talk about the sales role.

Jeremiah: Yeah. I still need work there, man. I’m telling you. So, it’s funny because that’s the last thing that we hired and that’s where everything, in terms of our hiring and our growth, has — that’s literally been the final frontier for us. And then, after hiring that, we’ve gone back through the company and kind of improved and innovated in every area leading back up to sales. And so, the reason for that is I was most heavily married to how we were positioned.

                        I wanted to be seen as an agency with integrity. And that’s the single keyword that means the most to me, in regards to SimpleTiger, is integrity.

                        We actually have a “From the Founders” letter on our website that we send people if they’re ever concerned about the ethics of our company. And it’s like, “Here’s our promise, and we have to sleep at night.” That kind of thing. Integrity is what drives us. And so, I can’t tell you how many times I get on a sales call with a client and say, “Look, where you’re at right now, you guys need to invest in Facebook advertising. We don’t do that. You should do that for three to six months. You also need to do a little paid search, figure out your target keywords, and then you need to bring that data to us once you’re eating healthy and you’ve got enough revenues, additional, on top of what you have right now from that advertising. Once that’s working well enough for you and you’ve got the revenue and you can afford to dump six grand a month into a healthy SEO campaign for six to nine months without seeing a return — when you can do that, then we need to talk.”

                        Right? And I’ve been blown away at how well that’s actually worked for us by kind of pushing people away. But, regardless, hiring a salesperson was kind of our last thing because I wanted to make sure that whoever we hired could take what we sell and sell it properly. And we’ve been really lucky to have that because Ashley, who we hired, has been doing a fantastic job at positioning what we sell correctly.

                        So, she brought in her own skill and her own technique and her own ability to close, and she’s a fantastic closer in an area that I’m not so good at, actually. I have a harder time asking for the close. She comes right in and is totally comfortable asking for the close. But she also does a fantastic job of making sure that when she’s about to present a project that she’s structured it properly and that she sells something that our team is happy to deliver. And part of what we’ve assessed her sales ability on is going into the team and saying, “Hey, guys. How are all these projects that she has sold? How are they?” And they’re like, “Man, she did a great job. The client’s expectations are perfect. She took perfect notes. We have a client dossier here. Everything makes sense. Communication’s been easy. The handoff was smooth.” I’m like, “Right on.”

                        You know? That told me that we made a good hire in that regard. And then the natural challenges come up of performance in regards to the other — you know, there are so many different types of salespeople and so many different types of sales needs. Like somebody that can go out there and hustle and just brings leads in. That’s something else that we need: Somebody that can generate their own sales leads so that we don’t have to tax marketing too hard, but at the same time we do need to be doing good quality marketing so that our sales person doesn’t have to break their neck everyday trying to bring in their own leads.

                        So, we’re currently in a process of trying to figure out that balance and what that’s going to take. Honestly, it just goes to show you that, as an entrepreneur, as an agency owner, there are always challenges, always something you could be doing better.”

Jason:              Gotcha. And before we hit record, we were talking about kind if niching down. You know? Tell us, what was that process like? How did you finally pick a niche?

Jeremiah: Yeah, no. That’s a great question. So, for several years now, I had been involved in marketing for quite a long time, but SEO has been my bread and butter. At the same time, I’ve also done some just consulting outside of and around SEO because, quite frankly, I just love marketing in general and I’ve read and studied a lot about it. So, picking a horizontal niche wasn’t too hard because I’d already done SEO for so long and had a lot of success and understanding with that. I had kind of a reputation in the industry and in the area for being the SEO guy.

                        So, that was kind of an easy horizontal for me. It was a little scary because when I watch shows like The Profit, for example, with Marcus Lemonis, and I listen to different business consultants, they talk about adding services, adding products to your product line that can add revenue — top end revenue and bottom line profits. And that all just kind of made sense, so I was kind of scared to put all my eggs in one basket with a horizontal niche. But, you know, I kind of knew at some point I’d probably have to do that.

                        Now, picking a vertical niche was absolutely terrifying. But, at the same time, there were several times over the past many years where I would get this gut feeling, like, “Man, we need a vertical niche.” And the reason why was I would be on a call with a client — or it would be a prospect, usually. Somebody that hasn’t actually converted into a client of ours. But we’d be talking about something and I would try to push on them and say, “Who is your target market?” Every once in a while, the prospect would be like, “Well, we’ll service pretty much anybody. We’ll take care of pretty much anybody.”

                        As a marketer, I’m like, “Dude, that’s awful. We need to figure out your target audience and we’ve got to know who we’re talking to here. Who’s your tribe, man?” And it was so frustrating dealing with that, but then I would go look at myself in the mirror and be like, “Man, who’s our target market? Who’s our tribe, because we’re still just taking anybody that’ll walk through the door. And that’s not good because we’ve got everything from a tiny, little e-commerce company that’s a one-person operation trying to get started to a 20,000-person enterprise e-commerce company to a software company and a financial services company.”

                        I mean, we had everything. And it was nearly impossible for us to build a system that would deliver for all of them. It just didn’t make sense. And I saw us running ragged chasing after each individual client’s needs, and they were splitting us apart and it was driving me nuts. So, I started thinking, “You know, I could probably solve a bunch of issues with one solution here if we had a niche, which is that we would get a lot of the same type of client, and so scaling in terms of focusing and delivering their needs would be a lot easier, but then, also, marketing would probably be a lot easier.”

                        And I started thinking about that for like two to three years before even signing up for your Agency University. And then I heard people ask questions around the web, like, “If you had started your agency — if you could go back and start your agency over again, what would you do differently?” And that one question, my answer in my gut was like, “I’d probably pick a niche. I’d pick a target audience and just go after them with everything I had.”

                        And so, then, when we did the Agency University and you were like, “Niche down. Period. End of story. Do it,” I was like, “Alright. Let’s go ahead and pretend we’re going to do that, Sean.” My brother. I’m like, “Let’s just go ahead and pretend we’re going to pick a niche industry. What would we do?” And so, I started thinking about how I develop personas for clients. I like to look at, if you’re an established business, who are you? First of all, who’s really profitable? You know? If we look at all your different clients, let’s just be honest. At the end of the day, who’s profitable? Let’s start there, and then let’s whittle it down from there. So, we looked at who was profitable, who do we then — we do we find is an easy sell? Like, they get it. They understand us and we understand them. And then, after that, who do we actually just really, really love working with? Like, who do we enjoy? Who do I want to get on a client call with? You know? Because I could have those client calls that I dread, and I could have those client calls that I get off the phone and I’m fist pumping and I’m just stoked. I loved talking to them because maybe they implemented something right away or whatever. You know?

                        And so, as we went through all our books and everything and looked through everything, we found that software as a service companies, specifically, were the ones that were profitable for us, but also, from a sales perspective, they understood our industry, they know SEO — they get it — but they want someone that they can trust because they know SEO so well. So, if we get on the phone and we start trying to sell them SEO, it’s not going to go well. If we get on the phone, though, and we start asking them about their business and getting to know their business intimately, and offering up some advice on the phone about strategic directions that we might want to go with their campaign, and they can already kind of ascertain that we understand SEO, and then we say, “Okay, here’s how our process works,” and we lay it out and it’s very black and white — we give you the farm in terms of explaining our strategies. There’s no reason why I can’t just tell you how we’re going to do it because, at the end of the day, I know it’s going to take a lot of money to implement and it’s going to take a lot of work and we’re ready to do that.

                        So, when I heard you say that, that I should come through in some kind of an early offering like a foot in the door offering, it just made sense to me. I knew that that made sense. Now, charging for it wasn’t something I had ever done and I thought that that’s a little crazy. I don’t know if that’ll work. But as I listened to the podcast and I listened to the stuff that you said on the University, it started making more sense.

                        So, I brought it up to Sean. We put together a thing called an opportunity assessment and we started pitching that. And, right away, we got very clear yeses and noes from a sales perspective. So, with our software as a service companies, when we went with them with the opportunity assessment in front of them and just kind of laid it out, they were like, “Well, of course you have to do that. That just make sense.”

                        And I was like, “What? This is too good to be true.” It just made the whole process so much easier. So, picking that vertical niche was based on a long process of kind of analyzing our best clientele. And, since doing that, marketing has gotten a lot easier. But what’s crazy about that is it’s attracted more of other types of business, too. So, I think that’s an unintentional effect, like a tertiary effect of niching down is that at least now you know who you’re talking to. And guess what? A lot of people out there like to work with a company that does software-as-a-service-focused SEO work. They just need SEO work. But maybe they’re not a software as a service company, but they just really love what you’re saying and how you say it and everything and they want to work with you. And guess what? Right now, we’ll take them. We’re not going to say no to them, but we’re not going to directly pursue other companies right now. We’re focused on SaaS.

Jason:              Yeah. It’s all about just marketing to that niche, but you still can take on work from outside of that if it matches with your core offering and they’re a good client going forward. So, man, I’m so happy for your success. I’m glad you drilled down, especially being from Atlanta.

Jeremiah: Yeah.

Jason:              Right? You’ve drilled down and you’ve built an amazing agency. So, congrats on that. Is there anything I did not ask you that you think would benefit that audience?

Jeremiah: I don’t think so, actually. I really think that, honestly, just to kind of plug Agency University again — you haven’t asked me to do this. You haven’t paid me to do this. I was kind of stepping into it with like toes in the water. I was a little nervous about doing it because I know a lot about how agencies operate and stuff like that from my experience, but I didn’t realize how complex I had probably made things and how little I was focused until I really stepped in, with both feet, into Agency University. And it really helped us figure out three or four things right away that were big that we needed to change. And listening to some of the case studies and just the podcasts and stuff, it really started making sense what we needed to do. And I’ve just got to say, if you’re considering doing it, I highly recommend it. If you’re a small agency, a couple people, or even a big agency, lots of people, and you’re thinking, “What can we do to get better?” I think that your Agency University was really — it was pivotal for us. I mean, there’s no looking back from the direction that we’ve gone now. It’s just working so well. So, I recommend anybody really take the step.

Jason:              Well, I appreciate it. The checks in the mail to you. And if any of you guys are technology companies, SaaS companies, and you guys need SEO help, where can they actually go?

Jeremiah: Yeah. I’d say check us out at SimpleTiger.com. So, we actively work with all kinds of software companies, tech companies. We’ve got a lot of good case studies on the site. You’re free to dig it up and check them out. But get in touch with us. We’d be happy to talk to you. We’re not going to lead you down the wrong path and [inaudible 26:35] SEO realm. We’ll make sure that you know what you’re getting into.

Jason:              Awesome. And if there’s any agencies out there that work in that particular niche that doesn’t do SEO, definitely reach out to Jeremiah and his team. They’ll take care of you. It’s all about building relationships and strategic partnerships. Well, thanks so much for coming on the show.

Jeremiah: Hey, thank you, Jason. I enjoyed it, and thanks for having me.

Jason:              Thank you so much for coming on the show. You gave the audience a lot of valuable tips and strategies to go execute on. So, make sure all of you go to their website to find out more about them. We’ll put a link in the show notes at JasonSwenk.com.

                        What I want you to do now is pick just one big take-away from the show and set some time to Swenk it. Now, if you liked this episode and you want to stay up-to-date on the latest strategies for growing your agency, I want you to go to Swenk.it. On that page, you’re going to be able to sign up to receive email updates, links to my daily vlog called “Swenk Today” where I give you daily updates in the agency and business world for what is working now, and so much more. So, make sure you go to Swenk.it right now. And just remember that action leads to transaction. And until next time, have a Swenk day.